September 08, 2023

Castro, Warren, Torres, Goldman Call on Commerce Department to Address Troubling Increase in Assault Weapons Export Approvals

Lawmakers call on Secretary Gina Raimondo to publish updated data on Commerce approvals of assault weapons export licenses and respond to September 2022 Congressional inquiry

Text of Letter (PDF)

WASHINGTON – This week, Congressman Joaquin Castro (TX-20) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Congresswoman Norma Torres (CA-35) and Congressman Dan Goldman (NY-10) sent a letter to Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, seeking answers on the Department of Commerce’s (Commerce) lackluster oversight of assault weapons exports and its failure to release data on its approvals of these exports. The lawmakers are calling on Commerce 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 Commerce’s troubling increase of assault weapons export approvals. 

“In March 2020, the Trump administration transferred oversight of [assault weapons exports] from the State Department to Commerce, after which the value of assault weapon export license approvals immediately shot up by roughly 30 percent, profiting gun manufacturers while putting civilians at risk around the world. This problem may be getting worse – yet your Department has not published updated annual data — which will soon be a full year late — or responded to a congressional inquiry. Meanwhile, new reporting indicates that the Department continues to serve as a ‘booster and concierge’ to the firearm industry – promoting exports of deadly weapons that find their way into the hands of terrorists and human rights abusers to be used in brutal killings across the globe,” wrote the lawmakers. 

In the letter, the lawmakers note that Commerce has the statutory and regulatory discretion to weigh human rights, crime control, and civil disorder impacts in its evaluation of license applications for assault weapons exports, but it appears not to be fully using this authority. From March 9, 2020, when Commerce took over approvals for these weapons exports, to June 30, 2021, export license approvals for the transferred items, including assault weapons, totaled $15.7 billion, a roughly 30 percent average annualized increase compared to the State Department’s license approvals from 2013-2017. Alarmingly, the State Department reviewed nearly 60,000 more license applications in that five year period than Commerce did from March 2020 to June 2021, meaning that despite reviewing fewer applications, Commerce approved billions of dollars more in exports of these weapons per year than State.  

“Assault weapons are clearly being exported with Commerce’s approval and then used to murder civilians abroad, and Commerce owes the public a full accounting of its role. However, you have not responded to a September 2022 congressional letter that sought information about the increased license approvals. You have also delayed for nearly a full year Commerce’s annual publication of updated export and license approval data. Commerce posted its last export and license approval data, covering the period from March 2020 to June 2021, two to four months after the end of the relevant period (between August 4 and October 12, 2021).  Yet the Department has still not posted its data for the period from June 2021 to June 2022, over a year after the close of the data reporting period,” continued the lawmakers. 

Given their serious concerns, the lawmakers are calling on Commerce to promptly publish its delayed 2021-2022 assault weapons export approval data and respond to their September 2022 letter’s questions by September 19, 2023.

Congressman Castro has led Congressional efforts to prevent the United States from exporting its gun violence crisis. Last Congress, he introduced the Americas Regional Monitoring of Arms Sales (ARMAS) Act, legislation that seeks to disrupt firearm trafficking from the United States to Latin America and the Caribbean by implementing stronger transparency, accountability, and oversight mechanisms for U.S. small arms exports.  In July 2022, at 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.

Earlier this year, Congressman Castro also requested a federal probe from the Government Accountability Office into illegal firearms trafficking from the United States to the Caribbean.