Trading Safety for Profits: Why Firearms Exports Should Still Be Taken Seriously

By Nate Smith, Chair, Military, Security and Police Transfers, Thematic Group, Amnesty International USA

The United States is the world’s biggest arms exporter, and this includes the small arms and light weapons (e.g., handguns, assault rifles, shotguns) that are used in countless violations of human rights. Because these weapons are so dangerous, and so difficult to trace once they leave our borders, the U.S. Government has considered it necessary to establish special rules for exporters and brokers, to make sure they don’t fall into the hands of those who would misuse them.

These special rules, however, are about to be significantly weakened — and it’s up to us to stop this from happening.

For human rights advocates, these rules have been very important — they are the biggest tool we have at our disposal in speaking out against those who would attempt to sell weapons to human rights abusers, criminals, or other dangerous people. For major sales ($1m or more), public notice is required — that allows activists to speak out if the recipient is likely to use the weapons in human rights violations or re-sell them to someone who would. (The dangers of “diversion,” as this practice is called, were detailed an a 2010 Amnesty report that you can find here). Further, if the government is able to track where the weapons are from start to finish — what they call the “chain of custody” — the human rights community can raise the alarm if the rules are broken.

These rules — critical to human rights advocates who care about the arms trade — are about to change. As part of a package of changes begun in the previous administration, officials in the Dept. of Commerce and Dept. of State are planning to change the classification of semi-automatic firearms and associated ammunition. This means they will be no longer considered defense items, with “substantial military utility or capability,” but instead as readily available commercial items. As a result, they’ll be harder to track after they leave our borders, and there will no longer be any requirement that major sales be reported publicly. Two critical tools for human rights defenders, gone.

However reasonable these changes may seem (after all, rifles can be used for hunting, right?), it’s the level of risk that should govern how we think about sending these weapons abroad. Explosives are used in fireworks, after all, but that doesn’t mean we don’t carefully keep track of who is buying them and why.

Much like gun control advocates in the U.S. insist on universal background checks, we should insist on the same for our gun sales abroad. Seemingly minor changes like this will lead to a flood of U.S.-made weapons into conflict zones around the world, where they command top dollar. Making it easier for arms manufacturers to sell to irresponsible buyers and middlemen and keep it a secret is the wrong direction for U.S. policy, and human rights activists need to speak up and do something about it.

For right now, the best bet is to write a letter to your local paper, asking your Representatives and Senators to back two pieces of legislation designed to stop these changes from taking place. The first piece was introduced by Reps. Torres (D-CA) and Engel (D-NY) in the House, and the second by Sen. Menendez in the Senate, and a hearing is scheduled for 26th to discuss the rule changes.

Make your voice heard in advance of this hearing, and make sure your Representative know that you’ll be watching for their questions and comments.