September 28, 2022

Castro, Torres, Warren, Murphy Demand Answers from Commerce Department about Troubling Increase in Assault Weapon Export Approvals

Commerce Approved $15.7 Billion in Firearms Export Licenses and Denied Less than 1% of Export Applications Since Taking Over Approvals from State Department 

Text of Letter (PDF)

WASHINGTON – Today, Representatives Joaquin Castro (TX-20) and Norma Torres (CA-35) and Senators Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Chris Murphy (CT) sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo expressing serious concern about the threat to global public safety from the Commerce Department’s process for approving export licenses for U.S.-made assault weapons and high capacity magazines. In the letter, lawmakers ask the Commerce Department to revise its approach to assault weapons exports and provide information about export licenses approvals.

“We are writing with grave concern about Commerce Department actions that have weakened oversight of assault weapon and high-capacity magazine exports, padding the gun industry’s profits while putting deadly weapons in the hands of corrupt actors around the world. As Democrats in Congress work to crack down on the deadly use of these weapons on our streets, your agency approved nearly $16 billion in firearms export licenses in the first 16 months after it took over authority over small arms exports from the State Department… we urge you to modify your approach to align with President Biden’s gun safety agenda,” the lawmakers wrote.

Weapons manufacturers need an export license to sell assault weapons and high-capacity magazines to other countries. In 2020, in a move heralded by the National Rifle Association, the Trump administration transferred licensing authority from the State Department – which has deep expertise in evaluating the impact of arms exports on global stability and human rights – to the Commerce Department. During the 2020 Presidential campaign, then-candidate Biden promised to transfer licensing authority back to the State Department, a move which has not yet happened.

In the first 16 months since the Commerce Department took over licensing of firearms exports, it approved nearly $16 billion in sales – a 30% increase from the State Department’s volume of approval – while denying only 0.4% of applications. While the State Department was required to notify Congress of export license approvals for firearms valued at more than $1 million and Congress had the power to disapprove licenses, the same safeguards do not exist under the Commerce Department. 

In today’s letter, lawmakers note that while the Commerce Department has broad authority to reject applications for firearm export licenses by weighing factors including national security, foreign policy, human rights, and crime control, it has approved nearly all license applications. Often, a lack of end-use monitoring after exports are approved has meant that these weapons can end up in the wrong hands. While this situation began under the previous administration, there is little evidence that the Commerce Department has imposed tougher export standards since Secretary Raimondo was confirmed in 2021.

Given this troubling data and concerns that the Commerce Department may not be adequately scrutinizing license applications for gun exports for their impact on public safety, the lawmakers are calling on the Commerce Department to answer a set of questions about its current firearm licensing approval process and provide them comprehensive data by October 28, 2022.

Congressman Castro has led efforts to hold government at all levels accountable for gun violence prevention at home and abroad. In July 2022, during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he questioned Alan Estevez, Commerce Undersecretary for Industry and Security about the agency’s lax approach to export controls of military-style weapons, calling the transfer of export oversight from Commerce to State a “giveaway to gun manufacturers.” During the hearing, Congressman Castro expressed concerns that U.S.-made guns are fueling violence and instability in Latin America and emphasized the need to restore Congress’s prerogative to block U.S. arms exports.