January 24, 2024

Castro, Warren, Durbin, Torres Push Commerce Department to Prevent Gun Violence Abroad by Strengthening Firearm Export Controls

In new letter, lawmakers call on Commerce to Improve Firearm Export License Approval and Monitoring Policies 

Text of Letter (PDF)

WASHINGTON — Today, Congressman Joaquin Castro (TX-20), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Senator Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Senator Dick Durbin (Ill.), the chair of the Senator Judiciary Committee, and Congresswoman Norma Torres (CA-35) sent a letter urging the Commerce Department to incorporate a set of recommendations to strengthen export controls and end-use checks for firearm exports that will crack down on the unnecessary export of lethal weapons used in brutal killings abroad. This letter follows a 90-day review implemented by the Commerce Department and earlier letters led by these members requesting additional information on Commerce policies and their alignment with national security and foreign policy. 

Congressman Castro is the author of the Americas Regional Monitoring of Arms Sales Act, landmark Congressional legislation that would mobilize resources across the federal government to disrupt firearms trafficking from the United States and implement stronger transparency, accountability, and oversight for U.S. arms exports, including through action to transfer small arms authority from the Commerce Department and back to the State Department.

“The number of firearms export license approvals skyrocketed when the Trump Administration transferred firearms export control authority from the State Department (“State”) to Commerce. The transfer—and the resulting increase in lethal weapons exports—has driven up gun violence in foreign countries, which in turn has driven more and more migration. While we continue to support returning all firearms export controls to the State Department, we urge the Commerce Department to incorporate the recommendations in this letter as part of its policy review in the interim, in order to strengthen export controls and end-use checks and to crack down on unnecessary export promotion of weapons used in brutal killings abroad,” the lawmakers wrote in today's letter.

“As more and more firearms have left American shores, their impact in other countries has worsened. Reports abound of U.S.-manufactured weapons being used in horrific killings across the globe. In Thailand in October 2022, a gunman entered a nursery school and used an American-made Sig Sauer pistol to murder 36 people, including 23 children. In March 2022—the month with the most semiautomatic firearms exports from the U.S. to El Salvador in the previous four years—gang violence in that country killed a record 62 people,” the lawmakers continued.

On October 27, 2023, the Commerce Department announced a 90-day pause on export license approvals for certain assault weapons and other firearms. Today’s letter comes as Commerce prepares for the January 25, 2024 expiration of that pause. While the lawmakers welcomed the 90-day review, today’s letter repeated their call to reverse a Trump-era decision that transferred responsibility for firearm export approvals from the State Department to the Commerce Department and urged Commerce to implement significant changes in the interim to its export license approval and monitoring policies, as well as export promotion policies, including:

  1. Recognizing in a formal policy statement that firearms are the only lethal weapons on the Commerce Control List and asserting that it is a foreign policy interest of the U.S. to restrain the global proliferation of these weapons.
  1. Publicly posting requirements for end-use certification of exported semi-automatic firearms and committing to pre- and post-shipment transparency and end-use monitoring. 
  1. Adding “crime control” to the list of criteria systematically considered by Commerce prior to approving a firearms export license. 
  1. Taking advantage of existing, comprehensive sources (such as the State Department’s International Vetting and Security Tracking-cloud system) when reviewing license applications to identify problematic proposed end users.
  1. Encouraging countries of particular concern to fully participate in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) eTrace system to better track the use of U.S.-sourced firearms in criminal activity and facilitating programs to develop such capacities in countries of concern.
  1. Reducing export license validity from four years to one year, particularly for destinations of concern.
  1. Systematically reviewing licenses approved for export to countries importing very high numbers of firearms and confirming the identities of end users of these weapons.
  1. Capping exports of firearms to civilian buyers, and aggressively enforcing policies prohibiting transfers to security forces with an elevated risk of human rights abuse.
  1. Capping the number of exported firearms that can be covered by any single export license, particularly for destinations of concern, and distinguishing between firearms destined for security forces of trusted allies versus civilians or commercial retailers.
  1. Ending Commerce’s involvement in the SHOT Show and other firearms export promotion activities that can lead to, and even enable, gun violence and death abroad.
  1. Using its authority under the Export Control Reform Act of 2018 to issue all policy changes stemming from the review process as final rules to ensure prompt implementation. 

In the letter, lawmakers referenced recent reporting detailing how the Commerce Department has worked with industry trade groups to court foreign buyers for American-made firearms, undermining the Biden administration’s expanded efforts to combat gun trafficking and straw purchases. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which Congressman Castro voted to pass in 2022, was the first federal law to establish federal criminal offenses for straw purchasing and trafficking.


Congressman Castro has led bicameral efforts to reduce U.S.-origin firearms trafficking and hold the Commerce Department accountable for lackluster oversight of firearms exports.

  • In September 2023, Congressman Castro, Senator Warren, Congresswoman Torres, and Congressman Dan Goldman (NY-10) sent a letter urging the Commerce Department to publicly release data on its approvals of assault weapons exports and provide a response to questions laid out in their September 2022 letter about the troubling increase in assault weapons export approvals.

  • In April 2023, Congressman Castro, Senator Durbin, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (NY-05) wrote to the Comptroller General of the U.S. Government Accountability Office to commission a federal probe into the consequences of firearms trafficking from the United States to the Caribbean. 

  • In June 2023, Congressman Castro, Congresswoman María Elvira Salazar (FL-27), and Congressman Adriano Espaillat (NY-13) introduced the bipartisan U.S.-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act a comprehensive roadmap to modernize U.S. engagement with Caribbean nations that directs the federal government to prioritize actions that would reduce the flow of illicit United States firearms to the Caribbean region and provide technical support, training, and information-sharing to Caribbean security forces charged with monitoring maritime borders, including formal and informal ports of entry.
  • In September 2022, Congressman Castro, Senator Warren, Senator Chris Murphy (Conn.), and Congresswoman Torres sent a letter raising concerns about the Commerce Department’s increased approvals of export licenses for assault weapons and high-capacity magazine exports, and for putting the gun industry profits before national security and human lives. The lawmakers called on the Commerce Department to revise its approach to assault weapons exports and to answer questions about its export license approvals.
  • In July 2022, during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Castro 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.