Face it — the U.S. has a serious gun violence problem. From violence against women to mass shootings, over 106 people die a day from gun violence. In 2016, more than 38,000 people were killed by a firearm, constituting a human rights crisis we must take action to address.
At the same time, another human rights crisis is affecting countless migrants at the U.S./Mexico border — this one exacerbated in part by gun violence in Northern Triangle and other Central American countries. As AIUSA’s Margaret Huang puts it, “extreme policies won’t change the fact that for many of these people seeking asylum, the danger is so great at home that they have no choice but to flee.
And at the intersection of these two crises? A relatively obscure (but very dangerous) policy change, begun during the Obama administration and nearing completion very soon, that seeks to undermine critical human rights protections in U.S. arms export rules. As Susan Waltz writes in Defense One, “unless Congress acts, they will tear at an interlocking set of laws and policies intended to prevent exported U.S. weapons from falling into unintended hands.”
Here’s the change, in a nutshell: currently, exports of semi-automatic firearms (think handguns and assault rifles like the AR-15) require a license via the State Department. This is because they are on the U.S. Munitions List, and thus are considered “defense articles.” The proposed change would instead classify these weapons as “dual-use” items and exempt them from all kinds of important oversight. It’s like the U.S. is deciding to export its lax gun regulations to other countries.
What does this mean in practice? Well, for one, the public will no longer be informed of major sales of these weapons abroad — so we can’t object to them when they’re really a bad idea. Activists need to know about these sales in order to be able to use the few levers at our disposal — from writing letters and making calls to our elected officials to outright protest. In fighting this change, we’re really fighting for our continued ability protect human rights.
But that’s not all. The only institutional check on a President’s power to approve an arms export is Congress’ authority under the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA). Both of these laws apply largely to “defense articles,” though, so firearms like handguns and AR-15s would no longer be covered. These laws contain critical provisions that prevent weapons from being sold or diverted to human rights abusers. Without them, U.S. guns end up being used for atrocities around the world. In Iguala, Mexico, dozens of students were attacked, and some abducted at gunpoint. US guns also facilitate rising violence in Jamaica — two examples of a problem that will only be exacerbated by making it easier to spread these weapons around the world.
It’s not too late to stop this change from happening, though. As recently as July, 255 members of Congress voted to add an amendment to the NDAA that would prevent this change from going through. Amnesty International members made calls to over 30 members on relevant committees to make sure they know the human rights consequences, and it made a difference. But there’s more to be done. Will you make your voice heard?