U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Buy American” agenda takes a potentially deadly turn, with all the administration anticipated to issue new regulations that might make it easier for U.S. firearms and related ammunition to arrive at terrorists, criminal organizations and corrupt and abusive foreign security forces.
The Trump administration’s proposed regulations would likely transfer responsibility for reviewing licenses to export certain kinds of weapons, including assault-style rifles and pistols and armor-piercing sniper rifles, from your State Department on the Commerce Department.
Although significantly less appealing just as one F-35, these small arms are often called “the real weapons of mass destruction.” Responsible for around 1,000 deaths each day, these weapons also threaten U.S. service members around the globe. The proposal has raised significant concerns, including from U.S. law enforcement agencies which have fiercely opposed the transfer of the items due to increased risk that they will land at the disposal of unintended customers.
There are five key risks of shifting oversight of firearms exports towards the Commerce Department.
First, there’s an increased chance of exports to unauthorized customers and conflict zones. Under the Commerce Department system, companies can generally use several broad license exemptions to export military equipment without U.S. government approval. When the U.S. government shifts oversight of firearms exports to companies, it loses the ability to identify key symptoms, including risky middlemen, unusual routes and mismatched weapons systems, of an possible diversion of U.S. guns to terrorists, criminals or conflict zones. Without U.S. oversight, the government also couldn’t stop the sale of firearms to foreign security force units accused of serious human rights violations or corruption.
Second, a shift for the Commerce Department could compromise the United States’ capacity to investigate and prosecute arms smugglers. The Trump administration’s proposal would likely take away the current requirement that individuals receive government approval before trying to broker an offer to non-NATO countries for firearms controlled through the Commerce Department. The proposal may additionally eliminate the requirement that companies first register using the U.S. government before engaging in arms exports, which U.S. law enforcement officials provides to construct investigations against illegal arms traffickers. Furthermore, the proposal could create greater legal ambiguity about restrictions on firearms exports and, thus, impede U.S. law enforcement officials’s efforts to prosecute cases of illegal arms trafficking. Indeed, if an arms exporter can present a reasonable person would be confused by U.S. regulations, the illegal exporter could escape prosecution.
Third, the proposal risks losing key legal restrictions on dangerous arms transfers. Commerce Department regulations, unlike the State Department’s, are not stuck just using all federal laws that regulate security assistance, such as commercial export of defense articles to foreign governments that support terrorism, violate internationally recognized human rights norms or hinder humanitarian operations as well as country-specific controls imposed on nations of concern, such as China. A shift for the Commerce Department would probably complicate, or else end, State Department reviews of a recipient’s human rights violations, because State Department bureau accountable for human rights may face greater difficulties in pressing for restraint on risky firearms exports. Such a shift would thereby dilute the State Department’s capacity to prevent high-risk transfers.
Fourth, the Trump proposal risks eroding global norms on firearms exports. Over the past twenty years, through bilateral and multilateral agreements, the United States has successfully encouraged governments worldwide to look at better laws and policies to avoid irresponsible and illegal arms transfers. Many of those agreements note the call to review export licenses on a case-by-case basis, highlight the importance of brokering registration and licensing and contain other key controls. If the United States decides to lessen or remove some of these controls, all kinds of other countries may choose to achieve this also, especially if it enables them to better compete using the United States.
Finally, a shift may likely result in less transparency in arms sales. The proposal could eliminate both Congress’s as well as the public’s take a look at U.S. firearms sales authorizations and deliveries worldwide for the reason that Commerce Department’s annual reports cover only about 20 countries. Furthermore, there won’t be any public end-use reports on arms exports authorized from the Commerce Department like those for exports authorized by the State Department. The reports are of help to distinguish key trafficking patterns which can help avoid risky arms transfers.
Although the Commerce Department keeps a regulatory process for exports, its oversight is notoriously less robust compared to the State Department’s. Indeed, Congress has limited the executive branch’s authority to transfer military equipment towards the Commerce Department to only those articles that will not have “substantial military utility.”
While firearms may well not seem to contain the destructive power of a number of other conventional weapons systems, their potential impact might be devastating. As such, they deserve greater, not less, scrutiny when making export decisions.