Fights to Protect Strict Controls over Exporting Firearms and 3D printed “Ghost Gun” Blueprints
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today announced he will again block the Trump Administration from drastically weakening firearms export regulations, stopping an imminent change to strip oversight authority of U.S. firearm sales abroad from the State Department’s Munitions List (USML).
This is the second time Senator Menendez will prevent the transfer to the Commerce Department’s less-strict export system over concerns that the Trump Administration is seeking to eliminate meaningful congressional oversight of the proposed foreign sales of these lethal weapons.
“As you no doubt are aware, firearms and ammunition – especially those derived from military models and widely in-use by military and security services – are uniquely dangerous,” wrote Senator Menendez in a letter addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “They are easily modified, diverted, and proliferated, and are the primary means of injury, death, and destruction in civil and military conflicts throughout the world. As such, they should be subject to more rigorous export controls and oversight, not less.”
The current review process allows Congress notification and review of proposed sales of firearms, including the export of assault-style semi-automatic rifles and sniper-rifles. That process has halted major proposed arm sales by the White House, including a sale of automatic combat rifles to the Philippine police, who were caught executing civilians without trial, and semiautomatic pistols to the bodyguards of Turkey’s President who violently attacked peaceful protestors in Washington, D.C. without consequence.
As the top Senate Democrat with oversight on U.S. firearms exports and weapons sales, Menendez first refused to clear on the proposed transfer at the beginning of this year, demanding the Trump administration be more forthcoming in responding to his questions around the proposed transfer. Since then, and in response, the Commerce Department has agreed to impose a far more restrictive policy on the publication of instructions for 3D-printed guns on the Internet.
Menendez, however, raised concerns over the new proposed change and indicated his hold will remain in place until the Department guarantees that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committees are “immediately informed of any proposed license to export firearms formerly controlled on the USML at the appropriate dollar threshold mandated in the Arms Export Control Act.”
Menendez’s efforts follow new statutory requirements on the President and Secretary of Commerce demanding they fully control emerging technologies like 3D printing. 3D printing of nearly-undetectable guns by terrorist groups present a real and present danger to American embassies, military bases, and passenger air carriers abroad.
Earlier this year, Senator Menendez separately led a group of his colleagues in introducing the Stopping the Traffic in Overseas Proliferation of Ghost Guns Act, legislation that would statutorily prohibit this transfer, and therefore maintain the strict controls over firearms and 3D printed “ghost gun” information that currently exist on the United States Munitions List.
Additionally, as a champion for major gun safety reforms, Sen. Menendez was an outspoken opponent of the Trump Administration’s action last year allowing a Texas company to publish the downloadable designs for 3D printable firearms, which was later blocked by a federal court, and has taken a series of additional actions to prevent the proliferation of untraceable, undetectable 3D printed guns. He called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to intervene and reverse his department’s decision and spoke out about his decision at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
A copy of the Senator’s letter to Secretary Pompeo can be found HERE and below:
The Honorable Michael R. Pompeo
Secretary of State
The State Department
Dear Secretary Pompeo:
On February 4, 2019, I received congressional notification from the Department, pursuant to the authority of section 38(f) of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), for the proposed transfer of responsibility for the export control of firearms and ammunition from the United States Munitions list (USML) to the Commerce Control List (CCL). I wrote to inform you on February 22 that I was placing a hold on that congressional notification. On November 12, 2019, the Department submitted a new 38(f) notification in response to a proposed regulatory change by the Department of Commerce. I write to inform you that I am placing a hold on the November 12, 2019 notification for the reasons detailed below.
As you no doubt are aware, firearms and ammunition – especially those derived from military models and widely in-use by military and security services - are uniquely dangerous. They are easily modified, diverted, and proliferated, and are the primary means of injury, death, and destruction in civil and military conflicts throughout the world. As such, they should be subject to more rigorous export controls and oversight, not less.
Combat rifles, including those commonly known as “sniper rifles,” should not be removed from the USML, nor should rifles of any type that are U.S. military-standard 5.56 (and especially .50 caliber). Semi-automatic firearms should also not be removed, and neither should related equipment, ammunition, or associated manufacturing equipment, technology, or technical data.
My hold will remain in place until such time as the issue identified below is sufficiently addressed.
1) Removal of Firearms Exports from Congressional Information and Review
The AECA provides for congressional review of exports of lethal weapons to ensure that they comport with U.S. foreign policy interests. As you know, Congress took action in 2002 to ensure that the sale and export of these weapons would receive closer scrutiny and oversight, including by amending the AECA to set a lower congressional reporting threshold (from $14 million to $1 million) specifically for firearms on the USML. Moving such firearms from the USML to the CCL would effectively eliminate congressional oversight of exports of these weapons by eliminating this congressional reporting requirement, and would be directly contrary to congressional intent.
To that end, I reiterate my demand from my previous letter: the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees must be immediately informed of any proposed license to export firearms formerly controlled on the USML at the appropriate dollar threshold mandated in the Arms Export Control Act. This concern must be satisfactorily addressed before I will lift my hold.
2) Proliferation of 3D Gun Printing Technical Information
In my February letter, I expressed that there is a serious risk that this transfer will open the floodgates of information for the 3D printing of nearly-undetectable firearms and components by foreign persons and terrorists that intend to harm U.S. citizens and interests. The Department of Commerce claimed that it could not, by its own regulations, prevent the publication, including on the Internet for global consumption, of technical information and blueprint files that would enable this 3D production, if such information has once been published, even illegally. I wrote that:
Ultimately, the specific provision of the Export Administration Regulations that is cited as preventing Commerce from controlling the publication of 3D Printed guns in the longer term needs to be rewritten to permit this control. Until that occurs, or until Commerce determines that such technical information can and will be controlled, this technical information cannot and should not be transferred from USML to the CCL.
I understand that the Department of Commerce has now decided to alter its regulations to address this concern; technical information related to the manufacture of firearms, to include 3D-printing information, proposed for transfer to the CCL will be prohibited from publication or Internet posting without a license. That does seek to address my previously-expressed concern, and I will not insist on this to lift my hold. However, I note that this improvement could easily be undone through a simple regulatory change in the future that would not even require congressional notification or review; a statutory authority to maintain such licensing, or better yet, an outright prohibition, may be required. Moreover, Commerce must maintain a policy of “presumption of denial” for any license application sought to publish or post such information, and pursue any violations vigorously.