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Nick Wilson and William D. Hartung

There has always been some cross over between international concerns over small arms gun trafficking, and the domestic priorities of U.S. gun violence prevention groups. Arms control and human rights groups have focused on limiting firearm sales to repressive regimes, terrorists and criminal gangs…something no American wants to see happen. Domestic anti-gun violence organizations have addressed critical issues like gun suicide, child access to firearms, gun industry accountability, law enforcement tracking and prosecution of the movement of legal guns into illegal markets, and stopping prohibited and dangerous people from acquiring firearms within the United States. But the Trump Administration’s proposed rule changes on certain firearms export controls and the emergence of 3-D printed and “ghost” guns have united domestic and international organizations and law enforcement officials concerned with arms proliferation like never before.

Up to this point, the international and domestic split in focus was almost taken for granted as each constituency pursued its own urgent agenda. The international small arms groups were much more focused on sales and transfers of firearms to foreign militaries and law enforcement with a focus on their human rights abuses, while the domestic GVP community was more centrally concerned on getting and keeping illegal guns off the streets, preventing child and teen access to firearms, and stopping mass shootings by individual citizens in the US.

In response to the Trump Administration announcing its support for transferring oversight of the export of certain semi-automatic firearms and related accessories from the national security and human rights-minded State Department to the more pro-business, export growth-minded Commerce Department, an informal working group of international and domestic focused groups was formed in early 2018. Much of this was led by John Lindsay-Poland of the Stop US Arms to Mexico project and Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center, coordinating their efforts through the Washington, DC-based Forum on the Arms Trade. In February, the Defense Trade Advisory Group (DTAG), a key federal advisory committee to the State Department that includes representation by the gun industry trade organization, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), held a public comment session in Washington, DC. The two communities were implored to participate, and they used the forum to speak out forcefully against the expected export rules changes by the Trump Administration:

“As domestic firearms sales decline, the gun industry is desperate to identify new markets. This proposal will expand the opportunities for gun manufacturers to market and sell their weapons of war internationally. The proposed transfer of agency responsibility will not only increase the number and lethality of U.S. guns shipped to other nations, it will likely lead to more U.S. guns getting into the hands of criminal organizations, human rights abusers, terrorist groups, and others who will wreak harm. The voices of gun violence prevention advocates as well as survivors of gun violence and their family members are needed to inform DTAG and push back on this giveaway to the gun industry.“

On May 15th, word came that the Trump Administration would be publishing proposed rule changes in the Federal Register within days on the long-awaited Export Control Reform (ECR) rules applicable to U.S. Munitions List Categories I, II and III, which cover firearms, ammunition, and related equipment. The news came via the website of the US State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC). Once the proposed rules were published, there would be a 45 day comment period. The DDTC and the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) published the proposed rules on May 24th (83 Fed. Reg. 24198; 83 Fed. Reg. 24166) and comments were due by July 9th. A more formal working group was formed and began meeting on a regular basis to ensure that there was a thorough understanding and review of the complex proposed changes, and an equally thorough analysis of the possible implications and consequences of such a dramatic change. In the process of this collaborative review, it became apparent that the current status and regulatory oversight of 3-D printed guns, which the State Department had successfully stopped online dissemination of since 2013[1], would be undermined if the rules were implemented without changes.

It had been DDTC’s long standing practice to require prior authorization for any public release of International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR)-controlled technical data, source code or software while the Commerce Department takes a much less stringent approach to publicly available information. Therefore, if jurisdiction were moved to the Commerce Department, there would no longer be any controls on companies or individuals releasing such sensitive information into the public domain. Those who had worked with DDTC and ITAR in the past were confounded by the fact that State Department had neither considered nor addressed this issue in the proposed rule changes. Comments prepared and submitted on the rules change reflect this concern, for example those developed and provided by the Brady Center[2].

Within days after the comment period closed on the proposed changes to the export rules, news reports first came out about the Trump Administration secretly settling their case with Defense Distributed to allow them to upload and disseminate their blueprints worldwide, and with the government’s payment of some of the plaintiff’s attorney fees. The settlement date of June 29th came while the comment period was stillopen on the proposed rule changes, and was only disclosed later to the public. This complete reversal of position by the government even as it had won both court decisions thus far in the process, was met with great skepticism and bewilderment by all. The Brady Campaign, Giffords and Everytown filed a lawsuit seeking a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to stop Defense Distributed from uploading and disseminating such blueprints. When the court found that they lacked standing to intervene and proceed, several States’ Attorneys General filed action, including the Attorney General of Washington State, for which his TRO request to stop Defense Distributed was approved and joined by at least twenty of his counterparts from across the country. The follow-up hearing on that TRO is scheduled for the court to further consider on Tuesday, August 21st.

Many groups have deluged the US Justice and State Departments with calls, texts, emails, letters and social media questioning the wisdom, legality and necessity for such a settlement given the threats posed by online access to blueprints of 3-D printed guns. Members of Congress have proposed various bills[3] to address the potential threat in recent weeks, but there is little hope that the current majority leadership in Congress or the White House will address this matter any faster or more effectively than they have bump stocks, high capacity magazines or assault weapons. Indeed, beside the ongoing court focus, many states are already developing and introducing state legislation to regulate and prohibit 3-D printed and “ghost” guns, much as they’ve done to outlaw the sale, purchase and/or possession of bump stocks and other such accessories since the tragic Las Vegas shooting in the fall of 2017.

In the meantime, domestic GVP groups and internationally focused small arms groups have increasingly teamed up and are working more closely as our two areas of primary concern collide with the advent of 3-D printed and “ghost” guns accessible via the internet and online blueprints.

The letter we jointly sent to Secretary Mike Pompeo is but the latest attempt of those with our country’s best interests at heart to stem the potential availability to anyone of untraceable firearms. Surely, this is a time for every American to join their voice to this movement. Contact Secretary Pompeo’s office and let them know that, as a law-abiding taxpayer who relies on the government to provide the framework for the safety of us all, you stand vehemently against the availability of these weapons to anyone with a computer and access to a 3-D printer. If ever there was a time for citizen action…that time is now.

About the authors: Nick Wilson is the Executive Director of States United to Prevent Gun Violence. William D. Hartung is the Director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

[You can read more about the timeline of activities by referring to Newtown Action Alliance’s report Internet Access Should Not Equal Gun Access: 3D & Ghost Guns.]

  1. [1] In Defense Distributed v. U.S. Department of State, the Fifth Circuit upheld the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas’ decision to deny Defense Distributed’s motion for a preliminary injunction that would allow them to post the 3-D printing instructions on the Internet,after the State Department charged the company with violating ITAR.
  2. [2] http://www.bradycampaign.org/we-shouldnt-make-gun-exports-easier and http://www.bradycampaign.org/federal-legislation/115th-congress under Legislation & Policy We Oppose at Change in U.S. Arms Export Control
  3. [3] Go to 3D & Ghost Guns Fact Sheet and Talking Points at: http://www.bradycampaign.org/federal-legislation/115th-congress