Here are four things to know about the administration’s effort to facilitate gun sales abroad.
Semiautomatic weapons would no longer be regulated as military equipment
The proposed changes would transfer responsibility for licensing exports of certain small arms and light weapons away from the Department of State and into the Department of Commerce. The switch reflects the administration’s desire to draw a bright line between military and nonmilitary weapons.
This isn’t just a bureaucratic reshuffling. Semiautomatic weapons would no longer be considered military-grade equipment — and thus would face fewer export hurdles. In revising the rules, the administration is abandoning the controversial term “assault weapon,” which until now has figured prominently.
The new rules would instead distinguish between weapons that are fully automatic — capable of firing more than one shot by a single pull of the trigger — and those that aren’t. Export sales of automatic firearms would still go through the State Department’s tougher licensing process, as would sales of big guns such as mortars and howitzers. However, export sales of semiautomatic guns and rifles, including large-caliber sniper rifles, would now be handled by Commerce — even though such weapons have military uses and can readily be converted to automatic.
In principle, weapons can’t be exported just anywhere; some destinations will still be off limits, and even selling guns to Canada will require a license. But getting licenses to export these weapons will be much cheaper and simpler. The Commerce Department doesn’t have a registration process, and unlike State, it doesn’t charge a fee for licensing. According to the government’s proposal, about 10,000 license applications will transfer to Commerce.
Both firearms manufacturers and the attorneys who represent them welcome the changes — not least because manufacturers will shift the cost of licensing to taxpayers.
It’ll be harder to control the spread of firearms abroad
The proposed changes may have some unintended consequences, as Congress over the years has drawn its own bright line in a different place. Federal laws make a crucial distinction between defense articles on one hand, and commercial or dual-use weapons on the other.
Based on this distinction, the U.S. has built an elaborate regime for controlling small arms and light weapons, which it has touted as a global gold standard. In this complex system, a small change in one area will significantly affect others. The switch from State to Commerce, for example, will mean that the brokers and financiers who arrange shipments of semiautomatic firearms will no longer have a statutory requirement to register and obtain a license. That will make it easier for unscrupulous dealers to escape attention.
Further, Congress will no longer be automatically informed about sizable sales of these weapons. That will limit its ability to comment on related human rights concerns, as it recently did on Turkey.
Human rights advocates worry that it will be easier for rebel groups and armed gangs to acquire military-style weapons such as the AK-47, which — whether semi- or fully automatic — are often used in war crimes and human rights atrocities, as they have been in civil conflicts from Liberia to Afghanistan to Yemen and Colombia.
3-D-printed weapons could become widely available
But the provision most likely to catch everyone off-guard has to do with 3-D-printed weapons.
In 2013, gun rights activist Cody Wilson produced a fully operable 3-D-printed pistol. Wilson claims to have plans for an AR-15 ready to distribute when legal hurdles are cleared. For Wilson, the most formidable legal obstacle has been the federal requirement that all U.S. weapons manufacturers register with the State Department.
In 2012, Wilson set up a nonprofit called Defense Distributed, which posted online instructions for 3D-printing weapons. The State Department charged him with violating arms export laws, since his open-source posting made it possible for anyone with access to a 3-D printer, anywhere, to produce a lethal weapon. Defense Distributed lost the ensuing legal battle.
The proposed regulatory changes, however, may give Defense Distributed a new opportunity to distribute those instructions. The Commerce Department will apply its own rules to open-source technology, and will not invoke arms export law.
That means that unless Congress intervenes to limit 3-D printing of weapons, as Philadelphia has, once semiautomatics are regulated by the Commerce Department, Wilson and others who line up behind him will be free to distribute their instructions — and anyone with a 3-D printer can use them to make their own guns.
Why is the Trump administration acting now?
From one perspective, the proposed changes are simply part of a continuing effort launched by the Obama administration to reform the arms export regime, streamlining the regulatory processes and distinguishing between military and clearly nonmilitary items. Since 2012, 18 categories of firearms have been updated without substantial controversy.
But the Obama administration shelved rules changes on the remaining three categories — the ones under consideration here — after the Sandy Hook shooting. There is no particular reason for reviving them now — except one. Trade groups representing arms manufacturers have lobbied hard for these changes in hopes that they will ease the costs of doing business and boost flagging sales.
Susan Waltz is a professor of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.