Over the next month, expect the left-wing press to tell you that the Trump administration, with its usual disregard for all that is right and sensible, is decontrolling exports of firearms, which will inevitably result in a flood of American firearms washing around the world and allow any terrorist or dictator to buy from the American market. All this is a flat-out falsehood.
What’s actually happening is the culmination of a process that began — unfortunately for the left-wing narrative — back in the Obama administration. In one of its better decisions, that administration decided that there were too many commonplace items on the U.S. Munitions List (USML), which — under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) — defines what qualifies as a defense export.
The administration rightly decided that genuinely military weapons — fighter planes and tanks —should remain on the USML, overseen by the State Department. But treating products that were already widely commercially available as though they were tanks wasn’t stopping proliferation or keeping America safe. It also wasted expensive bureaucratic time, as a license for the export of a rifle to the United Kingdom had to undergo the same kind of scrutiny as the export of a tank to Saudi Arabia.
So very early on, the Obama administration decided that most firearms, the ammunition for them, and their parts and components should, like a lot of other items on the USML, be moved to the Commerce Control List (CCL), run by the Commerce Department. And then — nothing happened. While reform of most of the ITAR categories moved ahead, reform of the three firearms-related categories stalled as the Obama administration refused to do anything that might look like it was helping the firearms industry.
All the Trump administration has done is to move ahead with the process the Obama administration started. This process is about exports, so it has — it should go without saying — absolutely nothing to do with the availability of firearms in the United States. Nor does it change the fact that if you want to export firearms from the United States, you have to have both an export license from the U.S. and an import license from the country you are exporting to. If that other country doesn’t want to import from the U.S., no change in the U.S. export control system will allow a U.S. exporter to sell there.
And in practice, the biggest barrier to U.S. firearms exports has nothing to do with the U.S. export control system. The biggest barrier is that the U.S. is — unavoidably — a high-cost producer. If you want cheap guns, buy from China or Russia, to name just two exporters who aren’t fussy about their standards or their customers. Buying American means buying quality – and quality costs.
That said, it’s not easy to sell items on the USML abroad. A primary reason for this is that, under the State Department’s system, you have to have your contract negotiated and signed before you can get an export license. But many buyers will not accept bids from U.S. companies that meet the required or desired delivery date because of the extremely long approval time of the State-ITAR process. The UMSL also imposes a lot of other barriers – like making it hard to employ non-U.S. citizens, for example – none of which make sense in the world of commercially-available firearms.
The advantages of having most firearms on the CCL are obvious, which is why the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the firearm industry’s trade group, has backed the idea from the start. But no one involved in this —the Obama administration officials who started this process, the Trump officials who are finishing it, or the NSSF — wants to make it easier for terrorists and dictators to buy American guns. Moving firearms to the Commerce Department will not decontrol the export of firearms.
Commerce export licenses for firearms, like other items moved to the CCL, will be subject to review by both the State Department and the Defense Department. So if either department believes that a particular firearms export risks U.S. national security or poses a threat to regional stability, it has the power to block or condition the sale. And, needless to say, holding an export license from Commerce does not allow you to sell to nations for which the U.S. has a policy of denial (such as North Korea).
So when critics say that allowing firearms manufacturers to get their export licenses from the Commerce Department will “lead to national and international insecurity, and contribute to violations of human rights and international humanitarian law,” they need to explain why the State Department will suddenly stop doing its job of reviewing licenses. They apparently trust the State Department to review licenses under the USML — but not, for some reason, to review them under the CCL.
When they say that under the new system, “gun manufacturers can export without adequate background checks on the countries or security forces purchasing them,” or that “these changes risk making it easier for weapons to end up in the hands of terrorists,” they need to explain how those State and DoD checks will change. The answer is simple: they won’t. In fact, the biggest single risk of the shift from the USML to the CCL is that State and DoD will decide — out of an abundance of caution, or merely bureaucratic perversity — to muck up the process by attaching so many provisos to CCL licenses that the Commerce process becomes as cumbersome as State’s.
When they say that “advocacy and reporting on this proposal have been hindered by a lack of transparency,” they need to explain why they have not been following this public saga for the past decade. The principles, the progress, and the practices of export control reform have been copiously documented, workshopped, and explored. If the critics weren’t paying attention, that’s their fault.
And when they say that the reforms will make it easier for manufacturers to “escape accountability” for arms sales that are diverted away from their intended recipients, they should remember that the Commerce Department is extremely good at collecting intelligence, and that it gets daily electronic reports on U.S. exports. It also has dedicated enforcement agents, who are going to be incentivized to make sure that firearms industry doesn’t mistake the change in control systems for its disappearance.
In fact, industry insiders I spoke with at this year’s SHOT Show (the NSSF’s Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trades Show, the industry’s annual trade fair) anticipate that when the new system comes into effect — which will probably be in mid-October — we are likely to see a wave of enforcement actions against firms that, intentionally or carelessly, break the rules. Lefties will argue that this shows the new system isn’t working. On the contrary: it will show that the new system is not a decontrol.
The leftist case against these reforms reflects, first, a substantial dose of hypocrisy and ignorance. The reforms began under the Obama administration, and, to the extent they reflect a desire to make it easier for U.S. manufacturers to export, this was a desire that the Obama administration both had and boasted about incessantly. Second, there is the left’s basic and fundamental dislike of firearms and the firearms industry, coupled with its tendency to ambulance-chase crises they can blame on the U.S. and its arms exports. For example, we hear a lot about how U.S. arms exports are bad for Yemen — but not much about how a lack of U.S. arms exports left the Syrian rebels we supported in the lurch.
The final part of the left-wing case is a bit more interesting, in that it mistakes process for policy. All of the U.S. arms sales to which the left objects happened under the old export control system that the left-wing activists seek to defend. In other words, what the left is complaining about isn’t the new process, or for that matter the old one. It’s particular policies that happened under the old system. And, inevitably, things that the left finds unsatisfactory will also happen under the new system.
I hate to break it to these critics, but in the world of international relations in general and arms sales in particular, no U.S. government system will always produce the results you want with no edge cases, tough calls, or side effects. It is a form of childishness to believe that there is. Moreover, it is a serious error to confuse process for policy, because even a good process can — from your particular political perspective — produce results with which you disagree. The test of an export control system is whether it controls what needs to be controlled in a way that can be policed and allows all the interests and concerns at stake to be assessed and weighed.
The State-ITAR system was faulty not because it failed to assess and weigh, but because it tried to control too much. The new Commerce-CCL system will change that. It too will need to be assessed and tweaked in light of experience, just as the State-ITAR system, which dates from the mid-1980s, is badly in need of being rewritten and simplified to make it easier to apply. But when the left tells you that all of this is just another Trump administration mistake, tell them this: it was all Obama’s idea.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/tedbromund/2019/01/30/no-firearm-exports-arent-being-decontrolled/#7ab9e9e96c0c