Senate chooses minimal new restrictions on weapons for cops

Chamber voted on dueling amendments to the defense authorization bill

Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., speaks during a news conference after the Senate Republican luncheon on Tuesday, June 30.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., speaks during a news conference after the Senate Republican luncheon on Tuesday, June 30. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 21, 2020 at 1:58pm, Updated at 9:53pm

The Senate voted Tuesday to further restrict the kind of excess Defense Department weapons that can be legally sent to police forces but stopped short of setting numerous additional conditions on such transfers.

The decisions came on a pair of dueling amendments to the defense authorization bill, which the Senate may pass later this week.

The votes concerned changes to the law governing the Pentagon’s Section 1033 program, which allows sales or donations of certain excess military gear to federal, state or local law enforcement organizations.

A new debate over this often controversial law has been prompted by scenes this summer of police departments equipped with military gear responding to street protests for racial justice.

With 60 votes needed to adopt the amendments under a rule agreed to by both parties, the Senate voted 51-49 — nine short of the threshold for approval — on an amendment by Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz that would have attached numerous strings to transfers of excess military gear to police.

Schatz’s rejected amendment would have required that state and local governments approve the transfers. It would have required the Defense secretary to document to Congress that the Pentagon has received an accounting of all the equipment. If a police force is found to have violated the First Amendment rights of citizens, it would be barred for five years from getting equipment under the program. Even if the force is just under investigation for violating civil liberties, transfers would have to be paused.

“People on the left and right agree it is time to demilitarize the police,” Schatz said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Weapons of war have no place in police departments.”

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The Senate, after falling short of the votes needed to adopt Schatz’s amendment, then approved an alternative amendment on the Section 1033 program by James M. Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee.

Inhofe’s amendment — adopted by a vote of 90-10 — would require that police forces that get excess defense assets train their officers in “respect for the rights of citizens under the Constitution of the United States and de-escalation of force.”

In floor remarks ahead of the votes, Inhofe said, “We want to make sure the wrong kinds of equipment doesn’t get into the hands of people who cannot properly use it.”

The Inhofe amendment would bar transfers of bayonets, grenades other than stun and flash-bang grenades, weaponized tracked combat vehicles and weaponized drones.

Schatz’s amendment, by comparison, would have barred those weapons too, as well as tear gas, grenade launchers, firearms of .50 caliber or higher and ammunition of .50 caliber or higher.

Inhofe said Schatz’s amendment “would place such stringent limits on the 1033 program that it would make the program virtually impossible to use.”

Defense spending bill battle

The House NDAA, which the chamber approved in a 295-125 vote Tuesday afternoon, currently has no similar restrictions on the 1033 program.

The issue will be a live one, however, in the debate over the Pentagon’s spending bill. The Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to write its version of that bill, but the House will vote on its Pentagon money measure next week.

The House defense spending bill would restrict the transfers in a way that is closer to Schatz’s approach than Inhofe’s. The House money bill would mandate that local authorities approve the transfer and would set requirements for accounting for the equipment. The list of banned gear would be longer than Inhofe’s and would specifically bar silencers for guns.

Short debate planned

Also on Tuesday, the Senate adopted by voice vote an amendment to the NDAA by New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen that would authorize more spending on a federal study of the effects on people of so-called forever chemicals in drinking water. 

Then the chamber adopted, 96-4, an amendment by Texas Republican John Cornyn that would authorize increased federal grants and other incentives for U.S. semiconductor research and production.

On Wednesday, the Senate plans two more roll call votes, to be followed by a cloture vote to limit debate and set up a final passage vote on the NDAA, probably before the weekend. There may also be a manager’s package of uncontroversial amendments.

Wednesday’s planned votes include an amendment by Vermont independent Bernie Sanders that would move 14 percent of the Pentagon’s budget (save for funds slated for military personnel and the Defense Health Program) to anti-poverty grants for initiatives such as affordable housing and lead paint decontamination. The Senate is expected to reject the Sanders amendment.

The second amendment teed up for Wednesday’s session is a proposal by Montana Democrat Jon Tester that would expand the list of diseases associated with exposure to certain herbicide agents for which there is a presumption of service connection for Vietnam War veterans.