The Trump Administration's Gun Exports Plan: Implications for National Security and Human Rights

Prepared Remarks of

Colby Goodman

Director, Security Assistance Monitor


“The Trump Administration’s Gun Exports Plan: Implications for National Security and Human Rights”


October 1, 2018

10:30am to 11:30am

Congressional Meeting Room South, Room 217




Thanks for the introduction. I also would like to give a special thanks to Rep. Norma Torres for her important leadership on U.S. firearms export controls and anti-corruption efforts. It is also a pleasure to join my colleagues Kristen Rand and Lindsay Nichols on this panel.

As mentioned, I lead the Security Assistance Monitor program at the Center for International Policy, which focuses on increasing transparency and research on U.S. foreign security assistance. We are known for our comprehensive, public databases on U.S. security aid, military training, and arms sales as well as our research on key U.S. security assistance policy questions and risks.

In July, we published a report on the administration’s proposed rule to ease several controls on firearms exports. Before I get to the proposed rule change, however, I’d like to give you a quick overview of some of key U.S. firearms export risks.

U.S. Firearms Export Risks

As the top firearms exporter, the United States faces significant challenges in trying to prevent the diversion or misuse of U.S. firearms around the world. In FY 2017, the State Department approved over $2.6 billion worth of firearms to over 100 countries. In many of these countries, including the Philippines, Honduras, UAE, there is a serious risk that U.S. firearms could be used to commit human rights violations against civilians and fuel conflict.

There is also clear evidence that individuals regularly seek to circumvent U.S. export rules to traffic firearms to unsavory or unwanted end-users. For example, the State Department reportedly found that U.S. rifles exported to a former Soviet bloc country were illegally re-exported to private end-users in Central America. In another case, the State Department stopped the transfer of firearms to a transnational criminal organization after detecting suspicious license requests.

In fact, firearms are often one of the categories of weapons that require extra U.S. government checks to countries in many regions of the world. This is partly because firearms are the weapon of choice for many terrorist and criminal groups.

In a study last year, the Small Arms Survey showed how many individuals illegally exported firearms, parts, and ammunition from the United States to dozens of countries, including Russia, Lebanon, Egypt, Mexico, Thailand, and Nigeria, by bypassing our export license process. These individuals or companies regularly smuggled small numbers of guns or related parts using snail mail, maritime shipping containers, and air travel in an attempt to avoid detection.

In a case in 2012, U.S. authorities reportedly arrested individuals connected with an illicit firearm manufacturing operation designed to send hundreds of AK-style firearms to Mexico. According to Small Arms Survey, “the participants reportedly purchased firearms kits online and from local gun stores, assembled the kits into AK-style rifles using commercially available frame bending tools, and sold the rifles to a trafficker located near the Mexico border.”

Reduction in Congressional Oversight

The Trump Administration’s proposed rule to move oversight of some firearms exports from the State to Commerce Department removes several key controls that were created to help prevent the misuse or diversion of U.S. firearms. This includes the loss of key congressional oversight.

In the mid-1990s, Congress recognized the significant military role that firearms could play in igniting and fueling armed conflict in Africa and beyond and in harming U.S. national interests. As a result, they began requiring the administration to notify it of proposed firearms sales of $1 million or more. However, the proposed rule would remove this notification process completely.

In the past two years, Congress has used this notification process to halt or hold up firearms sales to Honduras, the Philippines, and Turkey out of concern that U.S. firearms could be used to commit human rights violations against civilians. They also stopped a potentially risky export of assault-style firearms to the civilian market in Mexico.

The proposed rule also prevents Congress from understanding firearms trafficking risks by removing an administration requirement to report on illicit firearms trafficking trends and the diversion of U.S. weapons. For example, the Commerce Department does not provide reports on their end-use activities like the State Department does.

Manufacturing and Low-Value Exports

One of the key reasons the U.S. government has been able to stop illegal firearms deals to criminal organizations in the past is the robust U.S. arms export licensing process. However, the proposed rule seeks to remove certain elements of this process that could limit important knowledge about the firearms market and provide new opportunities for individuals or companies to flout U.S. rules.

Under the proposed rule, the U.S. government would no longer require individuals or companies to register before they engage in the manufacturing or exporting firearms. According to interviews with past State Department officials, this requirement has provided useful information to better understand the nature of the firearms industry, including who owns and controls key items and technology. In some cases, it has also helped them in investigations of possible export rule violations.

Individuals and companies may also be able to exploit a new license exemption for firearms exports of low value. According to the proposed rule, U.S. persons can export certain firearms parts and components without U.S. government prior approval if the net value of the shipment is at or below $500, which is higher than the $100 threshold under ITAR. In particular, U.S. companies could use the Commerce Department’s License Exception Shipments of Limited Value (LVS) to avoid the license requirement for exports of items such as pistol grips and detachable magazines to over 100 countries.

This license exemption could make it harder for the U.S. government to stop the illegal, ant trade in U.S. firearms parts and components around the world. As the Small Arms Survey has shown, there is a robust illegal trade in U.S. firearms parts and components of items that regularly cost less than $500 dollars to Mexico and other countries. Some of these components could also help make the use of firearms deadlier.

Private Security Force Training

As the current rule is written, the U.S. government will likely lose oversight on many types of defense services that could pose real risks to U.S. national security interests. Today, U.S. defense companies regularly receive U.S. approval to provide over $40 billion in defense services a year to over 100 countries. Under the proposed rule, however, U.S. companies may be able provide a wide range of training activities, design and development assistance, testing, and production assistance on firearms and ammunition to foreign persons without sufficient U.S. oversight.

As U.S. private security contractors continue to pursue training opportunities with foreign security forces in countries such as Libya and China, it remains critical that the U.S. government maintain oversight of U.S. private security contractor activities. At the moment, a U.S. private security contractor seeking to sell training to foreign police units on how to aim and fire semi-automatic weapon must obtain a license. But, the new rule would likely allow a U.S. company to avoid this license requirement if the company did not also export firearms as part of the training.

This proposal may also complicate some past U.S. enforcement actions, such as the deferred prosecution agreement with the private security company formerly known as Blackwater, which included violations related to the export of small arms, ammunition, and training of foreign security forces in Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The new rule could also create an unfortunate scenario where U.S. private security contractors are able to provide services to foreign security units or militias that are otherwise prohibited from receiving training through U.S. foreign security aid.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Although I have highlighted some of the risks of the proposed rule, there are several others that we have included in our report. This includes the risk of removing certain firearms from its legal basis under the Arms Export Control Act, which will likely have many other known and unknown consequences. There is also the question of whether the move of firearms from the State to the Commerce department meets the AECA requirement as firearms have been designated as significant military equipment for decades.

Given the potential loss of so many U.S. arms export controls and the likely negative impact on curbing irresponsible and illegal arms transfers, we have urged the administration to wait until the Government Accountability Office finishes its analysis of the risks of moving firearms from the USML to the CCL until they move forward on this proposal.

In the meantime, there are several key things Congress can do to help mitigate some of these serious risks. Although the official comment period on the proposed firearms rule is over, the administration has accepted comments and suggestions by congressional offices on the proposed rules in the past.

We encourage Congress to get engaged on these issues. For a full list of our recommendations, please see our report. I look forward to your questions and can be available after this briefing to answer more detailed questions.