Under new rules coming soon from the Trump administration, more American guns could end up in the hands of human rights abusers, terrorists and international criminal gangs. Lawmakers are calling on President Trump to consider the implications before making the United States complicit in gun crimes around the world.
The administration is set to issue regulations that would significantly reduce oversight and transparency on small-arms exports to governments and private businesses in about three dozen countries, according to officials and lawmakers. First reported by Reuters, the new regulations would shift licensing for sales of handguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles and other light munitions from the State Department to the Commerce Department.
Should that shift occur, national security, foreign policy and human rights considerations could get short shrift and U.S. law enforcement would have less ability to track the weapons after they leave U.S. shores, harming the investigation and prosecution of international crimes.
Congress would also lose its primary oversight mechanism. Only last week, under congressional pressure, the Trump administration reversed itself on approving a plan to sell 1,600 semiautomatic pistols to the personal security force of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Last October, the Obama administration backed down from approving a plan to sell 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippines' national police, after public opposition from Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This is the type of sale that might slip through under the Trump administration plan, Cardin told me.
"The United States should never make it easier for foreign despots to slaughter their civilians or for American-made assault weapons to be readily available to paramilitary or terrorist groups," he said. "The administration's proposal makes those scenarios even more possible. The United States is, and should be, better than this."
Cardin and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D- Calif.) attempted but failed to amend the defense policy bill to ensure continued congressional oversight if Trump moves forward. They and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) urged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to reject the move in a Sept. 15 letter and pointed out that small arms are most likely to be used to kill people in conflicts worldwide.
"As such, they should be subject to more — not less — rigorous export controls and oversight," they wrote.
The Commerce Department exerts some controls over lethal weapons sales, but it has an institutional bias toward business and lacks expertise in foreign policy and national security considerations. Its licensing process is more dependent on companies volunteering information, creating greater risk of the weapons going to brokers who can speed them to the black market.
"We have a president who says he wants to get tough on rogue regimes, terrorists and criminals, yet he is pushing a policy that will make it easier for U.S.-manufactured arms to fall into the wrong hands," said William Hartung, director of the Arms & Security Project at the Center for International Policy.
Trump's move would complete the arms export control reform initiative begun by the Obama administration in 2012. President Barack Obama moved oversight of many weapons exports from State to Commerce — but not small arms. While that change was under debate, the Sandy Hook school massacre happened, and the move became politically unpalatable.
Internally, Obama's own Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department expressed concerns that the move could harm their ability to keep firearms out of the hands of criminal groups, terrorist organizations and enemy combatants.
A recent study by the Institute for Science and International Security reported that "federal law enforcement agencies vehemently opposed the transfer" of small arms from the State Department's munitions list to the Commerce Department's list for this very reason.
The State Department's list is also subject to a range of federal laws that restrict arms sales to foreign governments on the basis of terrorism or human rights concerns. Those laws don't apply to items on the Commerce list.
The only beneficiaries of the move are U.S. gun manufacturers, whose stocks rose sharply when the news broke. Gun industry trade groups argue that these are sporting weapons and consumer products, but they have largely the same capabilities as military weapons. Supporters of the move also say if U.S. manufacturers don't supply the guns, buyers will simply take their business elsewhere.
That's true, but it misses the point. In 2011, Americans and Egyptians alike were outraged to discover that tear gas used in brutal crackdowns on peaceful protesters by Egyptian police had been approved for sale by the U.S. government.
"It was not in our interest to have those canisters with 'Made in the USA' stamped on them," said Tom Malinowski, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.
In 1993, the Rwandan government imported $750,000 worth of machetes from China, which were later used to slaughter more than 800,000 innocent people.
The Chinese machete industry surely did well that year. The United States should never want that kind of business or that kind of blood on our hands.