Editor’s Note: Jeff Abramson is senior fellow at the Arms Control Association. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Less than 10 days after six children and three women of a US family of were killed in Mexico, drawing national and international alarm, the Trump administration indicated it would move forward with a dangerous policy change that would make the types of weapons most likely used in that tragedy easier to export. The move seemingly skirts Congress and is counter to the apparent will of the American public. The change is tone deaf to today’s needs and must be stopped.
Found at the site of the brutal killings of members of the LeBaron family November 4 were more than 200 shell casings, according to Mexican officials, used primarily in AR-15-type assault rifles, weapons of choice of Mexican cartels. Recognizing the dangers these weapons can pose in fueling and extending conflicts around the globe, their export has for decades been regulated under a list of US military goods maintained by the State Department.
In 2002, Congress, understanding that it also needed to better oversee the export of these weapons, lowered the threshold of when it must be notified of potential sales to just $1 million, as opposed to $14 million for other major weapons. And, after decades of mass shootings here in the United States, a majority of the US public now simply favors banning them domestically.
Yet, just days after the massacre, the Trump administration quietly let Congress know that it would move ahead with controversial revisions that it proposed to US export laws by transferring oversight of semi-automatic firearms and their ammunition to a Commerce-controlled list. There, business concerns are more highly valued and Congress would no longer be informed of pending sales.
The change in export oversight has been in the works for years, but as I testified in March at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing, it is misguided and dangerous, based on the false assessment that because these weapons are less sophisticated they no longer deserve our highest attention.
Since then, concern about the changes, as well as the weapons themselves, has only grown. In May, more than 100 organizations signed a letter to Congress opposing the changes. In it, a broad-based group of national and international religious organizations, gun violence prevention, human rights, education, arms control and peace organizations argued the changes “create new and unacceptable risks of exacerbating gun violence, human rights abuses, and armed conflict.”
In July, 225 members of the House of Representatives (including four Republicans) added an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to block the changes.
In October, dozens of groups added their voices to the call to see that the currently-stalled NDAA retains these provisions as a conference committee works to reconcile it with the Senate version.
Regarding the weapons themselves, almost all Democratic presidential candidates have come out in favor of an assault-style semi-automatic weapons ban, and both Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren have explicitly called for preventing or reversing the Trump administration’s proposed export changes in policy positions taken earlier this year. Once other candidates understand the disconnect between domestic opposition to the weapons and making them easier to export, we should expect a starker contrast between the President’s approach and those running against him in 2020.
Congress still has time to act as they consider the changes during a waiting period before the rules are finalized. And the American people can weigh in by contacting their representatives and raising awareness with the simple message that as the country grapples with domestic concerns about assault rifles, the President should not be taking an end around approach that makes it easier to export them.