(Adds State Department response, paragraph 7)
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, Feb 26 (Reuters) - A senior U.S. senator said on Tuesday he sought to block President Donald Trump’s plan to overhaul weapons export policy, setting the stage for a potential standoff over the administration’s effort to make it easier for gun makers to sell small arms to foreign buyers.
Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would refuse to consent to the Trump administration’s plan to transfer the export of small arms, including assault-style and sniper rifles and ammunition, to the Department of Commerce from the Department of State at least until he obtained more information about the plan.
Firearms “are easily modified, diverted, and proliferated, and are the primary means of injury, death, and destruction in civil and military conflicts throughout the world. As such, they should be subject to more, not less, rigorous export controls and oversight,” Menendez wrote in a letter sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday and released on Tuesday.
The administration notified Congress of the policy shift last month, part of a broad overhaul of export policy announced last year. The move would generate business for gun makers such as American Outdoor Brands and Sturm Ruger & Company .
There is a long-standing precedent in which a handful of lawmakers, including the ranking member of the minority party on the foreign relations committee, can object to and “hold” such a policy shift - or a weapons export deal.
In the past, administrations have respected such objections. But since they are not legally required to do so, it was not immediately clear whether the Trump administration would respond to Menendez’s concerns and delay its plans or go ahead now that a 30-day review period is over.
A State Department spokesman said the department was examining the letter and had no further comment.
Trump sees the U.S. weapons industry as an important source of U.S. jobs. Backers of the policy shift say foreign customers will merely obtain small arms from other countries if they are unable to make purchases from U.S. manufacturers.
The relaxing of rules could increase foreign gun sales by as much as 20 percent, the National Sports Shooting Foundation has estimated. As well as the industry’s big players, the change could also help small gunsmiths and specialists who are currently required to pay an annual federal fee to export a relatively minor amounts of products. (Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)