Guns Exports Could Rise If New Rule Is Approved

Posted May 23, 2018 9:37 p.m. EDT

The Trump administration wants to streamline the process for exporting American firearms, a change sought for years by domestic gun companies as a way to increase sales.

A proposed rule expected to be published in the Federal Register on Thursday would transfer jurisdiction of consumer gun exports from the State Department, where the licensing process is expensive and extensive, to the Commerce Department, which has a simpler application process.

Publication of the rule kicks off a 45-day comment period, after which departments including State and Commerce will review corrections and suggestions and then send a revised draft to Congress before final publication.

Gun industry groups said the shift, which was first conceived during the Obama administration but halted after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, would pare a bureaucratic process that currently discourages American firearms companies from sending their products abroad.

Lawrence Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation called the proposal “a significant positive development for the industry that will allow members to reduce costs and compete in the global marketplace more effectively, all while not in any way hindering national security.”

But critics of the proposal worry that American guns, including AR-15s and similar semi-automatic rifles frequently used in mass shootings, could more easily find their way into the hands of foreign criminals. Among the reasons: a change in the disclosure rules for certain sales. The State Department is required by the Arms Export Control Act to submit any commercial arms sale worth $1 million or more to congressional review. The Commerce Department has no equivalent mandate.

Rep. Norma J. Torres, D-Calif., has introduced legislation to keep oversight with the State Department, calling the proposed shift “dangerous.”

“It is very likely that the administration’s plan could be a boon for illegal weapons traffickers and their unsavory customers — from ISIS to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel,” she wrote in a description of her bill.

The proposed changes are meant to keep only items that are “inherently for military end use” under State Department control, and move those that are “widely available in retail outlets” to the Commerce Department.

Export sales represent a small share of the domestic gun industry. Sturm Ruger and American Outdoor Brands, which owns the Smith & Wesson label, both generate less than 5 percent of their sales outside the United States.

Guns imports far surpass exports in the United States. In 2015, the most recent year available from the Justice Department, 5.1 million firearms were imported into the United States, and 343,456 firearms were exported.

The shooting sports foundation predicts that revising the process would increase firearms exports by as much as 20 percent, Keane said.

But other experts pointed out that demand in some countries is constrained by strict gun-control regulations. And competition from brands like Italy’s Beretta, Austria’s Glock and Germany’s Heckler & Koch could dampen enthusiasm for American entrants.

Jurgen Brauer, the chief economist of the Small Arms Analytics research group, said he predicted loosened export rules would result in perhaps a 2 percent increase in sales for American gunmakers.

“I don’t see a competitive advantage for U.S. manufactured arms abroad,” he said. “Looking purely at quality, reliability, reputation and price point, what is it that these manufacturers see to make them believe a U.S. weapon would stand out in the foreign market?”

Firearm sales in the United States have struggled since President Donald Trump, a vocal supporter of the gun industry, was elected. Fears of gun control, which helped propel demand to record highs during the Obama administration, have waned during Trump’s tenure.

It was under President Barack Obama’s watch that the effort to turn the administration of commercial firearms export licenses to the Commerce Department began. The proposed rule concerning guns was nearly complete when 26 people, most of them children, were shot and killed in Newtown, Connecticut, in late 2012.

Kevin Wolf, an assistant secretary of Commerce who was leading the development of the new export rules at the time, said he had decided to hold off on publication because of the tragedy.

“Even though these rules have literally absolutely nothing to do with domestic gun control, I didn’t think it was optically the right time to start discussing guns,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a very emotional topic.”

The firearms rule being proposed “looks 95 percent identical” to the 2012 version, Wolf said.

“This is an intensely bureaucratic exercise,” he said. “It’s not a major change in gun policy.”

The Commerce Department already oversees exports of certain shotguns, and the proposed rule adds “guns you can buy at a commercial gun distributor,” Wolf said.

However, not all the items that would be covered by the looser Commerce Department rules are available everywhere in the United States. California — one of the country’s largest states for firearms sales — heavily regulates two items in particular: .50-caliber rifles and detachable magazines of the kind typically used by the military and police departments.

The proposed changes would establish the benchmark for high-capacity magazines as those capable of holding more than 50 rounds. California restricts most civilian residents to owning magazines that hold just 10 rounds; 30-round magazines, which are frequently used by the military, could be sold abroad.

Similarly, California places tight restrictions on owning powerful .50-caliber rifles, which are capable of hitting human-size targets at a range of 2,000 yards. The state Legislature called them a “clear and present terrorist threat” to not only human life, but also vehicles and infrastructure.

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., whose district includes Newtown, said Wednesday that she would try to “stop this if I can.”

“This is a national security and diplomacy question, but moving it to Commerce makes it an economic promotion of an industry,” she said. “It’s putting profits ahead of people.”