Editor’s Note: William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
For a man who regularly rails against the activities of criminal gangs and has claimed victory in the war on ISIS, President Donald Trump sure plays fast and loose when it comes to keeping weapons out of the hands of those who shouldn’t possess them. Just last week, his administration formally notified Congress of changes in US export rules that will make it easier for criminals to acquire US firearms.
According to the Forum on the Arms Trade, an informal global network of experts of which I am a member, the new rules would transfer jurisdiction over exports of everything from semi-automatic rifles to some types of grenades, from the State Department to the Department of Commerce. The systems covered by the change include AR-15 style rifles, which have been used in mass shootings like that in Parkland, Florida, a year ago. These are not harmless items or mere sporting rifles – in the wrong hands, they can and have been used as tools of mass slaughter.
The change in which department oversees exports of many varieties of US firearms is a huge step in the wrong direction. The State Department is set up to vet gun exports on human rights and security grounds. The Commerce Department is not. Commerce is also ill-equipped to track where US firearms end up once they have been exported, which will prove a boon to illegal weapons traffickers.
The impact of these dramatic changes in export regulations will likely be severe. The flow of refugees from Central America to the United States that has so troubled Trump is due in significant part to the activities of criminal gangs that have made it unsafe for people to remain in their home countries. Many of these gangs have acquired US-origin firearms, and the new rules will make it even easier for them to do so.
The consequences of freer firearms exports will reach far beyond the Western Hemisphere. According to statistics compiled by the Security Assistance Monitor, governments like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – which are waging a brutal war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians and pushed the country to the brink of famine – have aggregately requested to buy hundreds of millions of dollars of firearms from the US under the Trump administration. And last year, the Philippines was allowed to order $22 million worth of guns from the US, despite its record of collaborating in the murders of thousands of alleged criminal suspects without providing proof or conducting trials.
Another major flaw in the administration’s new approach to gun exports is the fact that Congress will no longer be required to be notified of these deals in advance. In recent years, Congress has taken action to block sales of guns to the body guards of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as to the Philippines police due to human rights concerns. Congress should be stepping up its scrutiny of these kinds of sales, but now it will be much more difficult to do so.
Thankfully, the new regulations will not go unchallenged. Democratic representatives Norma Torres from California and Eliot Engel from New York have introduced legislation that would block their implementation. And Bob Menendez, a Democratic senator from New Jersey and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has joined with fellow Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and other colleagues to introduce similar legislation in the Senate. Menendez has also indicated to the New York Times that he may put a hold on the new rules to buy time to debate and revise them.
The biggest beneficiaries of the new export push will be US gun manufacturers and their allies in the National Rifle Association, who have pushed for and welcomed these changes. But as Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has noted, exporting the tools of gun violence is a “shortsighted and reckless decision … that will directly result in putting deadly weapons in the most dangerous of hands.” Preventing this likely impact of the administration’s new gun export scheme is worth far more than boosting the bottom lines of a few US gun makers.
The Trump administration asserts that it is merely lifting controls on arms that are widely available in order to focus enforcement efforts on systems that, if exported, would undermine US military superiority over potential adversaries. But while some of the systems being deregulated are available in the United States, they are not easy to acquire in many of the nations to which US manufacturers are exporting. And it is this aspect of the rule – making it easier for foreign terrorists, tyrants and gangs to get their hands on deadly US weaponry – that poses the greatest danger.
Ideally, Congress should move to prevent these new rules from taking effect. Short of that, it should attempt to blunt their worst potential impacts by stopping the deregulation of weapons like the AR-15 and flamethrowers, which serve no legitimate purpose other than harming other human beings. And it is crucial that the practice of notifying Congress of major firearms export offers be maintained.
Congress has a few weeks left to address this crucial issue. The time to act is now.