While President Barack Obama tries to limit gun sales in the United States, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is urging his administration to make it easier for U.S. firearms manufacturers to export.
When it comes to guns, the administration has tried to have it both ways. At home, it promotes gun control and abroad, it signs the Arms Trade Treaty, which seeks to set rules on arms exports. But under Obama’s watch, gun sales in the U.S. have boomed like never before, and the administration has promoted U.S. arms exports enthusiastically.
The administration has also undertaken a reform of the U.S. Munitions List (USML), which sets out what items are subject to the stringent export control rules of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA).
The principle behind this reform is to allow the State Department to control the items that really need to be controlled under the AECA, and move the other items to the Commerce Department. In short: Build higher walls around fewer items, and stop burdening American business if American security isn’t at risk.
So far, the administration has fully revised 15 of the 21 USML categories. But it’s made no public progress on categories one through three, which cover firearms, artillery, and ammunition.
Many, though not all, of the items in categories one and three, in particular, are ripe for removal to the Commerce Department’s list. It’s difficult to understand why the administration hasn’t acted: .22 caliber rifles, for example, don’t need the same stringent controls as tanks.
Yet today, the rifles remain just as controlled as the tanks, and lawmakers have taken notice.
In mid-October, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., urged Secretary of State John Kerry to finish the review. In mid-November, six Democratic senators, led by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., followed up. Then, in early December, the House began to weigh in, led by Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa.
All three letters make the same point: That, as the Democratic letter put it, firearms exporters should “enjoy the same streamlined export licensing procedures” as other exporters. Less paperwork means lower costs, and that means a more competitive U.S. industry. Bipartisan support for this principle, and for the broader idea that the U.S. should only control what it needs to control, is sensible and right.
This has nothing to do with firearms sales inside the United States. It won’t allow exporters to sell firearms wherever they want to around the world: All exporters will still need import licenses from other nations. And it doesn’t allow firearms to be exported without any U.S. controls: It means that exports, when allowed, can proceed with less paperwork.
This isn’t about gun control, in the U.S. or outside of it: It’s about treating exporters fairly, and reducing as many barriers to exports as we reasonably can.
But so far, the White House has stood pat. It doesn’t appear to want to do anything to help firearms exporters, even if that means upending the principles of its own reforms and ignoring its own support for U.S. arms exports. That’s a mistake. Lawmakers are right to call it out.