(Bloomberg) — Citing the US Commerce Department’s “lackluster oversight” of the country’s international firearms trade, several congressional Democrats are calling on Secretary Gina Raimondo to tighten controls on the commercial export of US-made guns and to release long-delayed trade data detailing those shipments.
A 2020 rule change transferred oversight of export licenses for many types of firearms from the State Department to Commerce — a switch that gun industry lobbyists correctly predicted would boost overseas sales. In the first 16 months after the change, global export-license approvals rose 30 percent over historical averages, according to congressional estimates. The Democratic lawmakers noted that President Biden vowed during his presidential campaign to reverse the Trump-era rule. But he has not.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and others in Congress wrote to Raimondo last September asking for updated export figures to gauge the impact of the switch in oversight. They expressed concerns that Commerce was effectively “padding the gun industry’s profits while putting deadly weapons in the hands of corrupt actors around the world.” Raimondo’s office never responded to that query, according to Warren, and Commerce has stopped releasing new firearms export data.
Since then, US-made guns continue to “find their way into the hands of terrorists and human rights abusers to be used in brutal killings across the globe,” stated the letter, which Warren and three House Democrats sent to Raimondo on Wednesday evening. “Yet your Department has not published updated annual data – which will soon be a full year late — or responded to a congressional inquiry.” That failure could be “masking a record that may have gotten even worse,’’ they wrote.
A spokesperson for the Commerce Department said, “We are aware of the letter and will respond through the appropriate channels.”
Warren referenced reporting from a Bloomberg News series chronicling how surging US firearms exports are fueling crime around the world. The series also showed how the Commerce Department has promoted those sales by, for example, linking foreign buyers with manufacturers at the gun industry’s premier exhibition in Las Vegas each year.
As Bloomberg reported in July, no company has profited more from the American export push than Sig Sauer Inc., the US-based spinoff of the European gunmaker. After lobbying for Commerce to assume oversight of exports, Sig in 2020 signed a deal with Thailand’s government to export 250,000 semiautomatic pistols. Those guns, which were initially offered to former police and military officers, have fueled a thriving black-market trade. One of those Sig pistols was eventually used in the deadliest single mass killing in Thailand’s history, the October 2022 massacre of 36 people that targeted a children’s nursery school.
Warren’s letter cited that story, saying Sig “has clearly benefited” from the rule change. She also noted “steady streams” of US-made assault weapons” going to Guatemala, where Bloomberg documented increases in US shipments of rapid-fire weapons to commercial gun dealers, despite the country’s struggles with crime and corruption. Bloomberg also found that gun crimes spiked dramatically in Canada following a surge in imports of US-made semiautomatic pistols and rifles.
Warren’s letter was co-signed by three fellow Democrats in the House of Representatives: Joaquin Castro of Texas, Norma Torres of California and Dan Goldman of New York. They noted that Biden and Raimondo support a reinstatement of an assault weapons ban in the US, a proposal that faces opposition in the Republican-led House. “But the administration already has the authority it needs to crack down on the proliferation of these weapons abroad,” the letter stated.
“The Department of Commerce has a simple mission — to promote jobs and grow our economy — but its continued approval of assault weapons exports is leading to civilian deaths abroad,” Torres said in a statement to Bloomberg. “We’re calling on Commerce to provide swift answers regarding these dangerous exports.”