Defense conferees to decide fate of firearms export oversight

Decision nears on blocking the Trump administration from weakening regulations on the export of firearms

Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif. added an amendment restricting the administration from moving forward with its plan to shift export control of firearm sales from the State Department to the Commerce Department (File photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Among the many thorny issues Senate and House negotiators have to hash out as they negotiate a final annual defense policy bill this summer is whether to block the Trump administration from weakening regulations around the export of firearms.

The House version of the fiscal 2020 defense authorization measure contains a provision that would restrict the administration from moving forward with its plan to shift export control of firearm sales from the State Department to the Commerce Department.

[Republicans signal opposition to defense bill as floor debate kicks off]

Critics of the proposed change, who include the large majority of Democrats, anti-gun violence groups and human rights advocates, worry it will make it easier for rogue foreign military units, extremists and crime syndicates to obtain American-made firearms, assault weapons, shotguns and ammunition.

Supporters of the change, who include the vast majority of Republicans and the firearms industry trade association, argue it will simplify and speed up the export process at a time of strong global competition to the U.S. defense industry.

The Senate’s annual defense policy bill would not ban the administration from moving forward with its plan to shift commercial firearms from the State Department’s U.S. Munitions List to the Commerce Department’s Control List, which is considered less stringent and comes with substantively less congressional oversight requirements.

“I think there are a lot of members of Congress that still see export control as being about brake pads, urine bags and F-16 bolts,” said Colby Goodman, an independent arms control analyst who backs keeping export oversight with the State Department. “Republicans during [House] floor debate were talking about how they don’t see what the concern is  . . .  saying these are commercial items and you can buy these things in U.S. stores and they are sold everywhere so why should we really have these more stringent controls?”

Democrats’ concerns are more urgent, he said: “Firearms are used regularly by militaries and are used in armed conflicts and insurgencies  . . .  and they pose a significant concern for human rights violations, and these are the reasons why they should remain under control.”

Uncertain conference prospects

The fate of the firearms rule, which was largely developed by the Obama administration, will hardly be the most contentious issue that House and Senate conferees have to work through.

More high-profile partisan fights are expected over the bill’s topline budget authorization number, restrictions on the development of new nuclear weapons, and Iran war powers. In fact, the fiscal 2020 defense policy bill is shaping up to be one of the most polarizing in years. Not a single House Republican last week voted in favor of the traditionally broadly bipartisan measure. 

It remains to be seen whether more high-profile issues to fight over will help or hurt prospects for the firearms rule language that Rep. Norma J. Torres, D-Calif., succeeded in getting adopted during amendment debate by a narrow vote of 225-205.

“We should all be able to agree that putting more firearms in the wrong hands would make the world a more dangerous place,” Torres, who modeled her amendment on legislation she introduced earlier this year, said in a statement. “This doesn’t prevent or create any new restrictions on arms exports. It simply protects congressional oversight, protects national security, and keeps deadly weapons from falling into the hands of drug cartels and terrorists.”

One co-sponsor of her measure, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., is expected to be named as a House conferee on the defense policy bill and to use that position to advocate for keeping the language in the final product.

“We must do everything we can to prevent the Trump Administration from making it easier for firearms — including grenades, flamethrowers and 3-D printed guns — to proliferate around the world,” Engel said in a statement. “This is not about the Second Amendment, which applies in the United States. It’s about loosening controls on exports of dangerous weapons.”

In arguing in favor of letting Commerce take over export control of firearms, Republicans have repeatedly noted the change was largely developed by the Obama administration as part of its effort to overhaul export rules for many categories of defense-related items.

“This rule change should be finalized. After years of input from both sides of the aisle to make the change from State to Commerce, there is no reason this decision, which started in the last administration, needs to be delayed any longer,” Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., said in floor remarks last week. He noted export oversight of components for missile launch vehicles, military aircraft, submersibles and tanks has already been transferred from State to Commerce.

Bu none of the items whose export oversight was previously transferred were complete weapon systems that would allow a person to aim and fire on a target, Torres responded to Zeldin.

“The Obama administration did not move, or even propose to move, firearms and ammunition,” she said. “They saw what happened at Newtown and knew that we needed to be cautious about these weapons.”

In late February, Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez used his leadership position to place an informal hold on the firearms rule to keep it from being implemented. Given that the Trump administration on multiple occasions has blown through Menendez’s holds, it’s unclear how long it will respect this one.

Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who has offered his own bill to prevent the administration from removing any firearm from State’s Munitions List, told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday he supports keeping the Torres provision in the defense policy bill.

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