Its time for 2020 Campaigning for president, Joe Biden promised to maintain the State Department’s authority over firearms exports. President Donald Trump, with the support of the National Rifle Association, created a rule that weakens oversight of firearms exports by moving regulations from the State Department to the Commerce Department. “If necessary,” Biden promised, he would overturn the rule when it takes effect.
This rule came into force in March 2020 The Biden administration has made no changes to it since taking office
“The aim of trade is to promote exports. They have an incentive built into their mandate to ignore things that could lead to more violence.”
With last month’s high-profile mass shooting in California, the United States continues to grapple with gun violence on a massive scale.
But the gun crisis gets less attention abroad — thanks in part to the United States: the country exports tens of thousands of firearms around the world every year. More than half of the world’s guns come from the United States, with an estimated 620,00 firearms shipped overseas in 2022.
Biden is expected to address two interrelated crises in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday: gun violence in the United States and the immigration crisis in Central America. Some gun control advocates are skeptical that he will acknowledge the role of U.S. firearms in that crisis. (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.)
“The federal government is not known for an intersectional analysis,” said John Lindsey-Poland, coordinator of the Stop US Arms to Mexico project. The Biden administration discusses the immigration crisis as a problem that is purely economic. Violence is a key reason so many people flee north to the U.S. That violence is fed by both legal exports and the U.S. gun retail market, he said.
“It’s providing a very toxic cocktail for people in Mexico, Central America, Haiti and Jamaica who are caught up in criminal organizations and state agencies that are not responsible for using firearms,” Lindsey-Poland said. “And one of the ways they’re not liable is to continue exporting.”
According to a new report released last week from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, between 2017 and 2021 more than half of all crime guns found outside the United States were recovered in Mexico. Florida was the largest source of crime guns from Central America, followed by Texas, California, Virginia and Georgia.
Legal arms exports go to countries that have some control over how those weapons change hands, including government forces that are often involved in organized crime, Lindsay-Poland said. That is why export monitoring is a cause of concern for the commerce department.
He said, the aim of trade is to increase exports. “They have an incentive built into their mandate to ignore things that might lead to more violence.”
Where the Biden administration Failing to act, Congress may step in Congressional opposition helped block gun exports to the Philippines in 2016 and Turkey in 2018.
“That’s not happening right now,” Lindsay-Poland said. “Many of these exports are going on without any serious review of the results.”
Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, introduced legislation in December to address the export and trafficking of firearms from the United States to recipients in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. The bill includes safeguards such as restoring Congress’ power to ban small arms exports. It was written as a starting point for negotiations to return oversight to the State Department, a Castro aide said in a statement to The Intercept: “Congressman Castro’s position remains that the Trump administration’s decision to shift oversight to trade — and delay the return. This decision – makes it easier for dangerous people to get dangerous weapons.”
Castro raised concerns about the rule change during a July hearing with Commerce Undersecretary Alan Estevez. “There are fewer registration requirements, less oversight, more exemptions and significantly reduced congressional review,” the Texas Democrat said. “A few years ago it was basically a giveaway to gun manufacturers.”
And it has worked: Small arms exports have increased by at least 30 percent in the past 16 months.
Under previous rules, Congress would be notified of proposed gun export licenses for sales of $1 million or more. In July, the Commerce Department released a new rule requiring Congress to be notified of recommendations to authorize certain firearms exports valued at $4 million or more.
Castro asked Estevez why Commerce was trying to avoid congressional oversight by raising the threshold for notification. Estevez said the higher threshold is based on the department’s licensing powers and that the department is “not trying to avoid oversight.” (The State Department referred questions to the Commerce Department, which did not respond.)
“The Trump administration’s decision to shift trade oversight — and the delay in reversing that decision — has made it easier for dangerous people to get dangerous weapons.”
The NRA itself has acknowledged that firearms exports regulated by the State Department are “generally treated more stringently, with national and international security considerations overriding all other factors in licensing,” while export items regulated by the Commerce Department are “subject to more flexible” regulations.
With a narrow lens on the domestic gun violence crisis, the House passed an assault weapons ban in July at Biden’s request. The bill did not move to the Senate.
During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill, a Republican introduced an amendment to allow the sale of assault weapons within 10 miles of the Mexican border, a common, albeit false, Republican talking point for defunding law enforcement agencies in the region.
Democrats defeated the amendment, with some Democrats arguing that the federal government was doing everything it could to protect the border, and Democrats repeatedly voted to defund the police. Lindsay-Poland said it did not link U.S. arms sales to the violence that forces people to leave their home countries to come to the U.S. border.
“Democrats simply don’t provide that analysis,” he said, “and the policy remedies follow that poor analysis.”