Obama administration debating plan to ease curbs on U.S. firearms exports

Posted May 02, 2012, at 11:20 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is crafting a proposal that could make it easier to export firearms and other weapons to certain countries in an effort to boost sales for U.S. companies, increase trade and improve national security, according to senior government officials.

The plan, which is part of President Barack Obama’s overhaul of U.S. export rules, is being debated by several agencies and it could be months before a final rule is proposed, according to officials.

At least two federal agencies — the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department — have expressed concerns that the changes in the export rules could make it easier for drug cartels and terrorists to obtain weapons and make it harder to stop firearms trafficking.

Homeland Security raised its objections in an internal memo, saying that the proposed changes could hurt the ability of its agents “to prevent or deter the illegal export/transfer of lethal items such as advanced firearms to criminal groups, terrorist organizations or enemy combatants.”

But a senior official described the president’s Export Control Reform Initiative as “a work in progress” and said the concerns raised by Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies were being addressed.

“We are confident that the final outcome will represent the consensus of all agencies involved,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the process is ongoing.

A Homeland Security official Wednesday played down the agency’s memo, saying it was written months ago and “the portion of the draft rule over which DHS had expressed concerns has changed significantly.” He would not elaborate.

Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined to comment on the export rule proposal or his department’s concerns.

The proposed changes, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, would affect a range of items, including firearms and drones.

The president’s export control efforts are an attempt to reform a system that operates under 1970s-era rules and was designed to address the challenges of the Cold War period, according to an official familiar with the overhaul plans. The official also said that the proposal is an effort to improve national security by imposing controls on some exports but at the same time helping the nation’s allies.

Currently, two export control lists are administered by two departments, Commerce and State, under different statutory authorities with different requirements.

The State Department runs the U.S. Munitions List, which imposes tight restrictions on certain weapons, sales of which must be licensed. Under the proposed rules, some high-powered weapons, not including automatic or military weapons, could be moved from the Munitions List to a Commerce list, where they would be governed by fewer restrictions.

An official said it was not clear whether sales of weapons on the Commerce list also would need to be licensed.

“We’re still working through that,” said an administration official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “Some items will require a license and some won’t.”

Several members of Congress said they are concerned about the changes in the export rules, which could relax the restrictions on high-powered firearms.

“These are serious issues that have been raised, and the White House will have to address them,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Lawrence Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents firearms manufacturers, said the current export control system is “broken and antiquated.”

“Our industry supports the White House Export Control Reform Initiative,” said Keane, who is a member of a committee that advises the State Department on export control issues. “We hope to see our products move from the U.S. Munitions List to the Commerce Department list.”

In new figures released by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, U.S. manufacturers exported 242,000 firearms in 2010. Firearms exports were at their highest in 1993, when the figure was over 431,000. Imports of firearms climbed to 3.2 million last year, according to the ATF.

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