Donald Trump has so far spent the month of July using his presidential platform to degrade international relations and further destabilize peacekeeping efforts. He has bashed NATO, called the European Union a “foe” of the United States and publicly colluded with Russian President Vladimir Putin to issue transparent denials of the Russian military’s crimes against American democracy.
But under the radar, the Trump administration made another move that critics fear will contribute to violence and unrest around the world. The administration is quietly pushing to make it easier for American weapons manufacturers to export arms around the world, many of which experts fear will end up in the hands of dictators, criminals and terrorists. It’s a change that will be profitable for gun sellers, but could further destabilize already dangerous parts of the world.
On paper, the change seems small: The Trump administration is proposing to move control of certain gun and ammo exports out of the hands of the State Department and to the Commerce Department. But in reality, this shift could lead to a major change in how many guns get exported.
“It means exports of guns and ammunition like sniper rifles, semiautomatic assault rifles and pistols, and handguns used by Navy Seals and U.S. Special Forces would be subject to less strict oversight than they are now,” Katherine Phillips of Giffords writes. “Exporting these weapons to other countries, where they could fall into the wrong hands and potentially be used against Americans, would become easier.”
This proposed change is “very clearly driven by the desire of the gun industry to compete in the international market,” Lindsay Nichols, federal policy director of the Giffords Law Center, told Salon. “This is driven by the desire for profit.”
“We know the gun industry contributes heavily to groups like the NRA,” she added.
Earlier this month, a group of Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, asking them not to change the way these arms exports are regulated. They noted that the State Department’s methods make it easier for the U.S. government to track gun sales and for Congress to offer oversight that can prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands.
“Instead of making it easier to sell guns abroad, we need to stand up to the NRA and gun manufacturers,” Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., who spearheaded the effort, told Salon in an emailed statement. He added that he was concerned the change “would make it easier for dangerous weapons to end up in the hands of traffickers, terrorists, and cartels.”
“I get it. The president is wholly owned by the NRA and he can’t do enough to please the NRA,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., another signatory, told Salon. “I know the gun manufacturers want to make more money, but they shouldn’t want to make more money by selling weapons of war to people who quite frankly have no business having those weapons.”
Because the State Department rules allow congressional oversight, Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, was able to uncover a 2016 effort to sell 26,000 assault rifles to the national police of the Philippines. Cardin stopped the sale, citing the human rights abuses of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has reportedly overseen many extrajudicial killings of people he or his vigilante supporters accuse of being drug dealers.
Duterte once told Barack Obama to “go to hell,” in frustration at being unable to buy American weapons. He vowed he would buy them from China or Russia instead.
Trump, on the other hand, has made a great show of how much he loves Duterte, saying he has done an “unbelievable job” by murdering people without trial.
“He’s willing to embrace any tinhorn dictator that says nice things about him,” McGovern said of Trump. “We have an administration right now that doesn’t give a damn about human rights.”
In addition to concerns about weapons falling into the hands of human rights abusers, McGovern expressed concerns that the export rule change would lead to more American deaths at the hands of terrorists or other hostile agents, all so “gun manufacturers could make a few more bucks.”
“Many state and non-state groups in importing countries use semi-automatic weapons and sniper rifles in armed conflicts, drug trafficking and crime, and would be eager beneficiaries of the proposed rule changes,” the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence argued in a brief on the proposal, adding that U.S. troops in conflict zones “may be exposed to significant danger from enemy combatants using military sniper rifles and semi-automatic weapons exported from the United States.”
On top of this shift on export regulations, the Trump administration made further moves this month to make it easier for criminals, terrorists and other bad actors to get guns. This week, Trump’s State Department decided to stop fighting a self-described “crypto-anarchist” named Cody Wilson, who has been trying to post online blueprints for 3D printed guns. In 2013, the State Department stopped Wilson from doing this, declaring he was in violation of international export laws. As of Aug. 1, Wilson will be able to put these blueprints back online.
“Because people generally don’t need to undergo a background check to print their own guns — nor do the guns need to have a serial number once assembled — the government has no real way of tracing what experts see as a new and troubling trend for gun enthusiasts,” Tess Owen of Vice writes.
Wilson is portraying this as a victory for gun hobbyists in the U.S., but experts believe that the price of 3D printing is high, and the main beneficiaries will likely be wealthy criminal organizations, such as drug cartels and terrorist groups.
To make this situation even more troubling, evidence is piling up that people aligned with Putin’s kleptocratic government have been trying to influence the NRA, which in turn lobbies on behalf of loosening restrictions on gun sales. This week, an alleged Russian spy named Maria Butina, who had been infiltrating NRA circles, was arrested by the FBI. On CNN on Thursday, Rep. Adam Schiff said that he had wanted to bring Butina before the House Intelligence Committee for questioning months ago, but Republicans blocked him because they feared that doing so would “tarnish the NRA.”
The FBI is also investigating whether Russian politician and Putin ally Alexander Torshin funneled money through the NRA to support the Trump campaign.
Experts who spoke to Salon said they felt confident that the main reason the Trump administration is moving to deregulate weapons exports was to increase profits for the gun industry, which has strongly supported Trump through the NRA. But this move is especially troubling amid growing concerns about how much influence Russian agents, who are working to destabilize Western democracies, may have within the gun lobby.
Trump campaigned as a “law and order” candidate and has used the specter of international terrorism and gang violence to stir racism and build his own power. But this move shows that when it comes to taking measures that actually prevent terrorism and gang violence — by keeping guns out of the hands of bad actors — the Trump administration can’t be bothered. On the contrary, they’re moving to make it easier for sinister forces around the world to arm themselves.