Congress

House Democrats press to stop gun export rule change

Democrats hope to block a change that could make it easier to export firearms abroad, but time is running out

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats are working to block a proposed Trump administration regulatory change that is expected to make it easier to export firearms abroad, but it’s unclear if there’s enough time to stop the change from taking effect.

Legislation introduced last month by Rep. Norma J. Torres of California would effectively take away the president’s ability to shift export control of firearms from the State Department to the Commerce Department.

But the measure is running up against a deadline: Congress’ formal window to review the proposed rule change ends this week.

Torres told reporters this week that House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York, who is an original co-sponsor of the measure, is working with her to schedule committee action on the bill soon.

“I’m confident that HR 1134 will get a hearing,” Torres said in a conference call with reporters this week.

Democrats, outside human rights activists and anti-gun violence groups oppose the Trump administration’s plan to shift commercial firearms from the State Department’s United States Munitions List and place them under the Commerce Department’s Control List. Commerce’s licensing process is considered less strict, with significantly less congressional oversight.

The House effort comes after Sen. Robert Menendez, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, placed an informal hold on the rule change until the Trump administration provides reassurances that congressional oversight will not be weakened.

The New Jersey Democrat’s hold is not legally enforceable but a matter of long-standing bipartisan practice between Congress and the executive branch. Democrats are banking on the hold to last while they seek a bipartisan solution.

At the same time, they are pressing for action on Torres’ bill, which has 10 Democratic co-sponsors, as well as action on similar legislation sponsored by Menendez.

[Related: Menendez Blocks Firearm Export Rule, Citing Oversight Concerns]

“We need proper congressional oversight, so we can step in and make sure these weapons aren’t sent to bad actors, including terrorists, drug cartels, human rights abusers or violent criminals,” Engel said in a February statement. “I commend Rep. Torres for her continuing leadership on this issue, and I look forward to working with her as the Foreign Affairs Committee examines this matter in the weeks and months ahead.”

Concerns about lack of due diligence

The affected weapons include ones virtually identical in capabilities to firearms used by the military, such as 50-caliber sniper rifles as well as semi-automatic assault rifles that have been used in some of America’s worst shooting massacres.

The rule change has the backing of U.S. gun manufacturers, who want to obtain faster licenses to export firearms around the world at a time when domestic sales are falling.

Torres accused President Donald Trump of placing gun manufacturers’ profits above human rights and national security interests.

“I know that these weapons have been referred to as commercial-grade guns, but that doesn’t make them any less lethal,” she said. “They kill the same way. We should be looking at public safety and not how to make more money for the gun manufacturers.”

Some issue experts believe U.S. security interests will be harmed by the proposed export control change because the Commerce Department is generally less restrictive than the State Department in its end-user licensing requirements. For example, State permits only one end-user for each license, whereas Commerce allows multiple end-users. This could make it easier for crime syndicates and terrorists to purchase U.S. firearms through a second party.

Rep. Jim McGovern, another co-sponsor of the bill, said many of the Central American migrants and asylum-seekers who arrived in the United States in recent years have fled gang violence in their home countries that has been exacerbated by U.S.-origin guns. If the rule change goes into effect, the immigration problems at the southern border can be expected to grow worse, the Massachusetts Democrat said.

“Why we would remove accountability and oversight when it comes to the sale of guns to people who might use them in a way that most Americans would find abhorrent is beyond me,” said McGovern, who chairs the powerful House Rules Committee. He also participated in the teleconference.

Opponents of the move were also alarmed to learn from a Government Accountability Office report released last week that Commerce does not plan to add any more staff to handle the added workload of reviewing firearm export requests. The department acknowledged that the rule change would increase its licensing and enforcement responsibilities.

In 2013-17, the State Department reviewed approximately 69,000 commercial export license applications for firearms, artillery and ammunition, according to the GAO report.

In 2018, the Trump administration notified Congress that it was considering at least $746 million worth of proposed firearms sales, according to the Security Assistance Monitor, a project of the liberal Center for International Policy. More than two-thirds of those sales were for Saudi Arabia.

If the rule change goes into effect, the administration would no longer be legally required to notify lawmakers of such sales — a process that they have recently used to stop gun exports to countries with human rights problems, like Turkey and the Philippines.

The GAO report also found that even as the Trump administration is in the middle of the process of switching agency export control, there is no agreement in place between State and Commerce for Foggy Bottom to share its bad-actor watch list.

“We recommended that if the changes are made, State and Commerce should develop a process for sharing State’s watch list,” the GAO report concluded.

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