Two U.S. Agencies Object to Obama Proposal to Ease Gun Exports

The Homeland Security and Justice departments are objecting to an Obama administration proposal that would relax restrictions on gun exports, saying it would make it easier for terrorists to acquire weapons.

In an internal memo obtained by Bloomberg News, the Department of Homeland Security said officials should rethink a plan to transfer responsibility for monitoring shipments of some guns and ammunition to the Commerce Department from the State Department.

The changes may provide “an extremely attractive loophole that could allow nefarious actors to obtain these newly transferred” weapons, the department said in the undated seven-page memo. And it may “put U.S. military, law enforcement or civilian personnel at increased risk.”

The changes would undercut Homeland Security’s ability to deter illegal exports to criminal groups, terrorist organizations or enemy combatants, it said in the memo, which was provided by a government official who asked not to be identified because it’s an internal document. The Wall Street Journal reported the development earlier.

The President Barack Obama’s administration began an effort in 2009 to trim restrictions on the export of items with military uses, and officials have been working through lists to determine what can be eliminated. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who together championed the effort, said the goal was to erect higher barriers around fewer items.

Divided Responsibilities

The State Department administers restrictions on military items, and the Commerce Department does so for so-called dual-use civilian goods such as radar equipment or advanced computers, which also have military uses.

Under a proposal being deliberated within the administration, restrictions on the export of most guns that aren’t automatic weapons would be shifted to the dual-use category, Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation in Newtown, Connecticut, said in an interview.

The current system adds delays in exports because the State Department is required to notify Congress of sales at least $1 million. That effectively blocks U.S. manufacturers from selling to foreign militaries or police departments, Keane said.

U.S. Loses

“Our industry totally supports the White House efforts on this,” Keane said. “The U.S. loses out to European and Israeli competitors who aren’t forced to deal with these delays.”

U.S. arms and ammunition exports were $4.7 billion in 2011, according to Commerce Department data.

In a separate memo, the Justice Department also raised concerns about transferring control of arms and ammunition to the Commerce Department.

“The Department of Justice is willing to accommodate those policy judgments, but, as we have expressed, any transfers must preserve critical controls and enforcement tools,” according to the memo, dated March 12.

The memos say the administration has already adjusted previous proposals to deal with complaints from Homeland Security and Justice. It might not allow the sale of guns and ammunition to the 36 so-called trusted allies, which includes Italy, Romania, Norway and South Korea, without approval from Commerce, the memos say.

Lawmaker Concerns

Even with those changes, both departments expressed misgivings.

Disagreements are sometimes part of the rule-making process, said Matthew Chandler, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman.

“DHS strongly supports the President’s Export Control Reform Initiative,” he said. “We are confident that consensus will be reached.”

Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment.

U.S. lawmakers are also concerned.

“I want to look at it to make sure it’s not going to interfere at all with our attempts to go after the drug cartels,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, a New York Republican, said in an interview.

Ammunition and firearms are just one part of that effort. The State Department’s munitions list captures everyday items such as hoses, wires or brake pads, which may have been designed for a military system and now are widely available and primarily civilian in nature.

“It’s very hard to make that case that moving items from one list to the other leads to weaker controls,” William Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington, which represents exporters such as Boeing Co., said in an interview. “There is going to be a change in the legal status, but there is not going to be a change in the functional status of how these are handled.”