President Donald Trump will tout the rights of gun owners Friday when he speaks at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention, but he’s standing in the way of a new policy that could give the firearms industry a major export boost.
The industry is eagerly awaiting the publication of a final rule that would ease exports of firearms and ammunition, but the process has been stalled over the president’s concerns with the publication of 3D printed gun technology, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the issue.
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“He’s giving a win to the gun control advocates at the expense of the industry that supported him,” said one industry official.
As part of the final rule, the White House is trying to determine how to restrict the publication of technical plans for 3D printed firearms — an effort that has already run into legal problems because of a potential violation of free speech rights in the Constitution.
Trump has weighed in on the issue over Twitter, saying last summer that he was “looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public.”
“Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense!” he tweeted.
Trump’s commentary came shortly after the State Department last year settled a case brought by Defense Distributed, an organization that publishes open-source digital plans for 3D firearms online. The organization and gun-rights groups sued the Obama administration after it tried to restrict the publication of technical plans for a 3D printed gun.
The government was destined to lose the case because publicly available information is generally not subject to export regulations. Government restrictions on the publication of such information can also run afoul of the First Amendment.
It’s an issue the U.S. government has struggled with for several decades as it tries to keep foreign entities from obtaining new weapons.
The administration is trying to finalize the new rule, which would transfer export oversight of most firearms and ammunition from the stringent control of the State Department to more export-friendly Commerce Department regulations.
The rule is the final piece of a broader effort started by the Obama administration to streamline the country’s export-control system for weapons and technology that have both civilian and military uses. The initiative aimed to give companies more flexibility to export commercially available items while still safeguarding national security.
Then-President Barack Obama held off on easing export regulations on firearms and ammo amid an escalation of mass shootings. Shortly after taking office, the Trump administration moved forward with the proposed rule.
Now, Trump‘s hesitation on issuing the new rule makes him an unexpected ally with congressional Democrats.
The change has raised scrutiny on Capitol Hill. In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) announced an informal hold on the State Department’s request to transfer responsibility for the export control of firearms and ammunition to Commerce.
Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also worried about the publication of plans for 3D printed weapons, saying the rule would “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 lawmaker said moving forward with the rule without restrictions on 3D printed technology could be at odds with a recently passed law that authorizes the Commerce Department to develop new restrictions on exports of “emerging and foundational” technologies. The Commerce Department highlighted 3D printing as an area of emerging technology, Menendez noted.
House lawmakers have also introduced legislation that would block the move.
But sources said it is Trump’s position on the matter, not Democratic concerns, that has brought publication of the rule to a halt.
“It was really his tweet that stopped everything,” said one of the sources with knowledge of the process.
The White House and Commerce Department declined to comment on the issue.
“Nobody wants to tell [Trump] he is wrong,” said the industry source, who estimated that the rule could increase exports of firearms companies by 15 percent annually if the regulations were eased.
The Trump administration’s State Department has also expressed support for the rule, saying that the transfer of items to the Commerce Department will not jeopardize national security.
“These changes will significantly reduce the regulatory burden on the U.S. commercial firearms and ammunition industry, promote American exports, and clarify the regulatory requirements for independent gunsmiths, while at the same time prioritizing national security controls and continuing our ability to restrict exports where human rights, illicit trafficking, and related issues may be of concern,” a State Department official said in a statement.
Others on Capitol Hill are trying to prod the change along. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue, said that he did not support any further delays in the process.
A spokesperson for the lawmaker dismissed concerns over 3D printed weapons, noting that any firearm not detectable to magnetometers or X-rays has been illegal in the U.S. since Congress passed a 1988 law that applies regardless of how the gun is made.
“This rule will complete a scrub of the [State Department] U.S. Munitions List that began in 2010, which is long overdue,” Risch said in a statement.
Despite the legal question over 3D printed gun plans, proponents of the rule say the movement of firearms and ammunition to the Commerce Department does not mean those items will be freely exported with no oversight.
Many items from other categories that were transferred are eligible for a broad exception from export license requirements. However, firearms that transfer to Commerce Department controls will be excluded from that exception. Fully automatic weapons will also remain under the control of the State Department.
The firearms industry has complained that the delay in the rule has deprived them of benefits other industries are now reaping from a relaxation of export control rules. Regulatory changes could help sales of hunting rifles overseas and better compete for lucrative contracts to supply military and police units with semi-automatic weapons.
Under State Department regulations, transactions to sell firearms overseas that are worth more than $1 million are subject to congressional notification. Manufacturers could bypass that time-consuming process if those items fall under Commerce Department export rules. Smaller gunsmiths, who may not ever export, could also potentially escape a $2,200 annual registration fee that the State Department charges if their products move to Commerce control.
So far, the NRA, which supports the rule, hasn’t made the delay a major issue, but if it stretches too much longer, it could cause a rift with the administration.
“When gun owners find out, this could cause a political problem,” said the industry source.