The one thing the federal government did on gun control since Newtown

December 16, 2013

More than a year after the most significant mass shooting this century, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Congress has failed to curtail the availability of guns in America. But one thing has happened on the federal level -- or rather, not happened -- that has at least delayed the spread of U.S.-made sporting firearms around the world.


How carefully should these be controlled? (Ricky Cariot/Washington Post)

For the past four years, the State Department has been working to streamline the process of exporting goods that can be used for military purposes. Until recently, they'd all been subject to the same standard of review -- spare helicopter parts in the same way as F-16s. Not only that, but each item on the U.S. Munitions List had to be carefully tracked through every sale, in a Cold War-era effort to make sure they didn't somehow find their way into the hands of regimes that would use them for ill.

That far-reaching system created a big problem: Enforcement staff were stretched very thin keeping track of so many goods, usually for little actual benefit. So to "build taller walls" around the "crown jewels," State and other agencies started the arduous process of determining which items could be delegated to the Commerce Department, whose rules are not quite as onerous.

In its materials describing the export-reform initiative, the administration emphasizes the national security rationale for distinguishing between more and less sensitive material. But doing so is also a big boon for U.S. manufacturers -- especially small ones, which don't have the specialized staffing necessary to navigate all the paperwork. The old system made the use of U.S. goods so difficult that foreign militaries and businesses had started to design them out of their supply chains.

"Sometimes, it's just the perception of our export control system being a hassle that stops foreign suppliers from looking out for our manufacturers," says Lauren Ailey, who works on the issue for the National Association of Manufacturers. "Even if your stuff is pretty good, it's not good enough to warrant that. The penalties are high, and the stigma is pretty bad if you mess up."

The domestic firearms industry could use the help. Gun sales have slowed down after an initial bump driven by people worried that a post-Newtown crackdown would make it harder to buy them. As with the aerospace and defense industry, which has been squeezed by cuts in the military budget, they're looking overseas for growth -- mostly to the recreational market that drives sales in the United States.

"A bolt-action target rifle is licensed and controlled by the State Department the same way a machine gun is, and to us that doesn't make sense as a practical matter," says Larry Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun manufacturers and has pushed hard for the change.

The idea of loosening controls on small arms ran into resistance both internally, from the Department of Homeland Security, and externally: Staff from the American Bar Association and DePaul University's International Weapons Control Center, along with other human rights advocatesfretted that the Commerce Department would allow arms to fall into the wrong hands. And then, 2012 brought a chill on all potentially controversial new rules that might jeopardize President Obama's reelection.

Still, Keane thought the small-firearms rules would be in the clear after November, but not for long. "We know we were slated to be published by the end of last year," he says. "We know that it was delayed because of what happened last December in Newtown."

The State Department denies that any delay was intentional or political. But a former senior State Department official with direct knowledge of the process confirmed Keane's account, saying that publication of the sporting firearms rules was first slated for July 2012, then postponed after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., and iced again during the campaign.

"After the election, the drafts were again scheduled for publication in December and were well en route to the Federal Register," the official said. "State’s were awaiting signature with the undersecretary and had been signed at Commerce and were awaiting delivery to the Federal Register for publication when Newtown took place." While other rules have made their way to finalization -- the first categories, aircraft and gas turbine engines, went into effect in October -- the small firearms and guns rules still hasn't even been put out for public comment.

The whole export-control reform effort, which in principle enjoys broad bipartisan support, has been slowed by both technical and bureaucratic snafus. The part about commercial gun sales, however, appears to be the only one put on hold for the sake of politics.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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