Shift in Small-Arms Export Approvals Opposed by a Top Democrat

(Bloomberg) -- The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee says he’s intent on blocking the State Department from shifting regulation to the Commerce Department for exports of military-style firearms including certain pistols, semi-automatic rifles and related ammunition.

Senator Robert Menendez said in letters to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that he’s placing a hold on the move under a provision in the Arms Export Control Act until his concerns are addressed.

Menendez said “combat rifles, including those commonly known as ‘sniper rifles,’” shouldn’t be removed from the State Department’s munitions list. He added that “firearms and ammunition -- especially those derived from military models and widely used by military services -- are uniquely dangerous.”

Looser regulation also could “open the floodgates of information” for 3D printing of firearms that would be available to terrorists and criminals, the New Jersey senator said.

The State Department notified relevant congressional oversight committees on Feb. 4 that it would transfer jurisdiction over such weapons effective March 4 unless lawmakers moved to block the change.

Traditionally, State has honored congressional objections, at least long enough to hear out lawmakers’ concerns. Menendez has also introduced legislation to block the transfer, as have House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel of New York and Representative Norma Torres of California.

‘Extensive Consultation’

A State Department spokesman declined to comment on Menendez’s effort to block the move.

Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the Foreign Relations panel’s chairman, said in a statement that the State Department’s “formal notification on February 4 came after extensive consultation. This rule will complete a scrub of the U.S. Munitions List that began in 2010, which is long overdue. I do not support any further delays in the process.”

Under Commerce Department regulations, sales of the weapons involved to overseas customers wouldn’t be reported to Congress for approval as they are under State Department regulation currently.

Public Comment

During a public comment period, the transfer proposal drew criticism from arms control advocates such as the Center for International Policy and praise from the National Rifle Association’s legislative arm and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association representing the firearms and ammunition industry.

The NRA Institute for Legislative Action said it “charts a positive course that will contribute to national security, enhance the competitiveness of U.S. businesses and benefit ordinary gun owners.” The State Department didn’t adopt the NRA Institute’s proposal that Commerce also take over approval for exports of weapons silencers.

The transfer was initially planned by the Obama administration as part of an overhaul of the arms export licensing process that moved many categories of technology to the Commerce Department. The department is generally viewed by the defense and aerospace industry as having a less onerous process than the State Department.

That effort was abandoned in 2016 by then-Secretary of State John Kerry after opposition from some Senate Democrats.

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