WASHINGTON — In a move aimed at boosting the sale of U.S. firearms and ammunition abroad, the Trump administration has eased regulations on some commercial firearms exports.
American manufacturers will have fewer registration requirements in order to obtain an export license, as the State Department moved jurisdiction of certain firearms sales to the Commerce Department. The change, announced last week, was entered into the Federal Register on Thursday. It will be effective March 9.
The long-delayed rule change, which began under the Obama administration, is intended to lower costs for U.S. gun-makers such as American Outdoor Brands Corp. and Sturm, Ruger and Co., while refocusing regulatory attention on weapons sales that could pose national security risks.
For example, under the Arms Export Control Act, the State Department must disclose any commercial arms sale worth $1 million or more to Congress for review. The Commerce Department has no such requirement.
What's more, the State Department requires an annual fee from companies in the industry, whereas Commerce does not require such a fee.
"Exports of firearms and related items that do not perform an inherently military function or provide the United States with a critical military or intelligence advantage – including many articles that are widely available in U.S. retail outlets – will move to the Commerce Department's export licensing controls," assistant secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper wrote in an emailed statement to CNBC.
The move to shift commercial gun export licenses to the Commerce Department was nearly complete under the Obama administration when a gunman opened fire and killed 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in late 2012. While the proposal is unrelated to domestic gun control, the Obama administration dropped the change.
In May 2018, Trump formally proposed streamlining the process for exporting American firearms.
Thursday's transfer of oversight sparked concerns that the policy change will improve the bottom line of U.S. gun-makers while jeopardizing long-term global security.
"The Trump administration's decision to publish rules that functionally make it easier and faster to export semiautomatic assault-style weapons and select sniper rifles is out of step with the national and global conversation about guns," explained Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association.
"This move undermines global security and wiser U.S. arms trade policy," Abramson added.
Susan Waltz, a professor at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, called the change a "terrible decision."
"Over the span of a decade-long export reform initiative, this is the only instance where lethal weapons have been recategorized as commercial products," Waltz said in an emailed statement.
"At the very time we should be restricting access to military-style firearms, the new regulations aim to normalize them and boost sales," she added.
Cooper downplayed concerns last week on a call with reporters saying that the policy change will help refocus regulatory attention on weapons sales that could pose national security risks.
"When we are talking about the easing of certain aspects of industry, it does free us up at State to focus on the larger significant systems and platforms that are inherently of a military function and do provide the United States a critical military edge or an intelligence advantage," Cooper said at the time.
"Regardless of which department controls the export, all firearms will remain subject to U.S. government export authorization requirements, interagency review, and monitoring of commercial entities involved in export and sales," Rich Ashooh, the assistant secretary of Commerce for export administration, said on the same call with Cooper.