In the spring of 2017, New Hampshire-based SIG Sauer struck a deal to sell 1,600 semiautomatic handguns to the Turkish government. The contract, worth $1.2 million, had to be approved by the US State Department under rules governing the export of weapons, which also require Congress to be notified of large sales. Several lawmakers on Capitol Hill quickly objected to the SIG Sauer sale because those pistols were destined for the security force tasked with guarding President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — the same bodyguards who had just violently attacked protesters in a high-profile incident caught on camera outside the Turkish ambassador residence in Washington, D.C.
Under pressure, the State Department did not license the deal.
Had regulations recently proposed by the Trump administration been in place, the Turkish weapons deal would have proceeded more smoothly for SIG Sauer; in fact, members of Congress wouldn’t have been notified about it. Soon, the White House is expected to announce a transfer of the small-arms exports process from the State Department to the Commerce Department, a substantial deregulatory move that will have significant foreign and domestic policy consequences — none of them good.
The White House has tried to ease rules around international sales of arms under .50 caliber in size for the last two years as part of Trump’s “Buy American” agenda, arguing that these are “essentially commercial items widely available in retail outlets and less sensitive military items.” But even calling these weapons “small arms” is a misnomer: They include semi-automatic, assault-style rifles, some sniper rifles in use by the US military, and even flamethrowers.
Caught up in Trump’s plan are downloadable technical files to print 3D guns. A relatively new technology, 3D printers allow users to manufacture their own devices out of hard plastic using downloadable plans. Under the State Department’s regulatory framework, those blueprints could not be posted online, where they would be accessible anywhere in the world, because doing so would violate export laws prohibiting the foreign distribution of guns. That prohibition has had the effect of keeping Americans from easily accessing plans for 3D printed guns, too. But transferring control to Commerce could clear hurdles for undetectable, untraceable 3D-printed guns to be distributed online.
The export of small arms is currently subject to complex regulations that require the seller to apply for a license and provide extensive information about the proposed sale, the buyer and/or the end user of the weapons. This is a powerful accountability check to ensure US-made firearms won’t be misused by foreign criminals to unleash violence in unstable parts of the world, or for purposes that go against America’s national-security interests. And the State Department is best positioned to consider implications of arms transfer from multiple angles, including human rights and geopolitics.
As it is, the process under State is faulty enough. An audit released last year found that several transactions were approved internally despite missing information about the buyer. In one case, the audit shows that a mega-deal to sell 400,000 AR-15 rifles and more than 500 million rounds of ammunition to the Philippines Bureau of Customs in 2017 “for military use” was approved without alerting Congress, who would have surely objected to the contract over Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s horrific human rights record.
Under the purview of the Commerce Department, the process would be streamlined and subject to even less rigor. For instance, a single license to a manufacturer could be enough for several transactions regardless of size or buyer. And there will be no more congressional oversight of those sales. Commerce has tried to assuage concerns about 3D-printed guns, promising it will require licenses for companies that attempt to post blueprints online. But once the first license is granted, whoever has access to those files will be able to print an unlimited number of undetectable and untraceable weapons with little to no consequence. Imagine that.
It’s not too late to stop the administration. Congress should step in, by passing legislation that would prevent Trump’s move to ease gun exports and address the threat of downloadable 3D-printed guns.
In 2018, US companies exported more than $750 million worth of firearms, with more than half going to Saudi Arabia. American-made guns have been responsible for violence and repression globally. In Central America, US gun exports have been linked to the violence driving asylum-seekers to our Southern border. We should apply more scrutiny, not less, to whom we sell American-made weapons and under what conditions. While current oversight of foreign gun sales is not perfect, moving in the opposite direction will have deadly consequences.