The Trump administration passed a key milestone in a long-delayed rule change that would make it easier to sell US firearms, including assault rifles and ammunition, outside the country people briefed on the matter told Reuters.
The proposed rule changes, which would move oversight of commercial firearm exports from the US Department of State to the Department of Commerce, could be enacted as soon as the end of this year, sources said.
The move by President Donald Trump’s administration may generate business for gun makers such as American Outdoor Brands and Sturm Ruger & Company while increasing the sale of weapons abroad. A relaxing of rules could increase foreign gun sales by as much as 20%, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) estimates.
While the State Department is primarily concerned with international threats to stability and maintains tight restrictions on weapons deals, the Commerce Department typically focuses on making it easier for US companies to sell products overseas.
Since taking office, Trump has been a far more outspoken booster of US weapons sales abroad than his recent predecessors, acting almost as a salesman for the US defence industry, analysts said. Any move that would boost arms sales is also likely to earn support from the influential National Rifle Association as Trump’s re-election campaign heats up.
Critics, including some lawmakers and arms control advocates, expressed concern that any easing of export rules could make powerful weapons of the type often used in US mass shootings more accessible to criminal gangs and militant groups Trump has vowed to fight.
“This change will undermine congressional oversight, exacerbate the risk of international gun violence, human rights abuses and armed conflict,and put US servicemen and women at risk from US weapons in the wrong hands,” Rachel Stohl, a managing director at Washington think tank the Stimson Centre, said in a statement.
A review of the rules by multiple US agencies including the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security concluded this week. Government records show the final rule was formally transmitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget on October 23.
This week’s close of the interagency comment period was a key milestone that enables the Trump administration to put lawmakers on notice of the intent to transfer formal oversight of weapons sales from State to Commerce. Top officials at both departments still need to sign off on the issue before legislators can be notified.
Reuters first reported on the Trump administration’s interest in the oversight shift in 2017. The action is part of a broader Trump administration overhaul of weapons export policy.
The effort to streamline US small arms export controls dates back to an Obama administration initiative in 2009 that never translated into policy.
“The move would reduce the regulatory burden and make industry members more competitive in the global marketplace without reducing oversight,” said Lawrence Keane, head of government and public affairs for the NSSF trade group, adding “there is more oversight at the Commerce Department.”
Representatives from the Commerce Department and budget office declined to comment.
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“The Administration continues to work through the interagency process with the departments of State, Commerce, Homeland Security, Justice and other stakeholders to re-examining longstanding polices and regulations to ensure US industries have every advantage in the global marketplace,” a State Department spokesman said.
The U.S House of Representatives passed legislation prohibiting the transfer of firearms export oversight to the Department of Commerce. The bill, an annual defence policy bill called the National Defence Authorisation (NDAA), has not passed the Senate and is not yet law.
If the Trump administration moves to notify legislators of the planned change soon, it could be enacted before passage of the NDAA, as source said.
The Senate’s version of the NDAA does not contain the same language as the House bill. The measure is being discussed by legislative staffs, the person said.
Domestic gun sales have risen in the past three months, according to estimates released by research consultancy Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting. Sales are flat at 10.8 million units compared to the same period a year earlier, SAAF said in the estimate.