During his 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to maintain the State Department’s authority over firearms exports. President Donald Trump, with the backing of the National Rifle Association, had put in place a rule that weakened oversight of firearms exports by shifting regulation from the State Department to the Department of Commerce. “If needed,” Biden pledged, speaking of when the rule came into effect, he would reverse it.
The rule went into effect in March 2020. The Biden administration has not pursued any changes to it since he took office.
“Commerce’s aim is to promote exports. They have an incentive that’s built into their mandate to overlook things that could generate more violence.”
With back-to-back high-profile mass shootings in California last month, the United States continues to confront gun violence on a massive scale.
Less attention, however, is paid to the gun crisis abroad — one made in part thanks to the U.S. itself: The country exports hundreds of thousands of firearms around the world every year. More than half of the world’s guns are sourced from the U.S., with an estimated 620,00 firearms shipped abroad in 2022.
Biden is expected to address two interrelated crises in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday: gun violence in the U.S., and the migration crisis in Central America. Some gun control advocates are skeptical that he’ll acknowledge the role U.S. firearms play in that crisis. (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.)
“The federal government is not known for having an intersectional analysis,” said John Lindsay-Poland, coordinator at the Stop U.S. Arms to Mexico project. The Biden administration discusses the migration crisis as an issue that’s purely economic. Violence is a key reason that many people flee north to the U.S. That violence is fed both by legal exports and the U.S. gun retail market, he said.
“That’s providing a very toxic cocktail in Mexico, Central America, Haiti, and Jamaica for people who are caught between criminal organizations and state organizations that are not being held accountable for the way they use firearms,” said Lindsay-Poland. “And one of the ways they are not being held accountable is by continuing to receive exports.”
More than half of crime guns traced from outside the U.S. between 2017 and 2021 were recovered in Mexico, according to a new report released last week from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Florida was the largest source of crime guns traced from Central America, followed by Texas, California, Virginia, and Georgia.
Legal munitions exports go to countries with few controls over how those weapons change hands, including government forces that are often colluding with organized crime, Lindsay-Poland said. That’s why moving oversight of those exports to the Department of Commerce is cause for concern.
“Commerce’s aim is to promote exports,” he said. “They have an incentive that’s built into their mandate to overlook things that could generate more violence.”
Where the Biden administration is failing to act, Congress could step in. Congressional opposition helped to stop gun exports to the Philippines in 2016 and Turkey starting in 2018.
“That’s now not happening,” Lindsay-Poland said. “A lot of these exports are just going through without any serious review of the consequences.”
Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, introduced legislation in December to address exports and trafficking of firearms from the U.S. to recipients in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. The bill includes safeguards like restoring Congress’s ability to block small arms exports. It was written as a starting point for negotiations to move oversight back 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 Commerce — and the delay in reversing this decision — have made 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 curtailed congressional review,” the Texas Democrat said. “It was essentially a giveaway to gun manufacturers a few years ago.”
And it worked: Small arms exports have increased at least 30 percent over the last 16 months.
Under the previous rule, Congress would be notified of proposed gun export licenses on sales of $1 million or more. In July, the Commerce Department published a new rule that Congress will be notified of recommendations to approve certain firearms exports worth $4 million or more.
Castro asked Estevez why Commerce was trying to evade congressional oversight by raising the threshold for notification. Estevez said the higher threshold was based on the department’s licensing capabilities and that the department was “not trying to evade oversight.” (The State Department referred questions to the Department of Commerce, which did not respond.)
“The Trump administration’s decision to shift oversight to Commerce — and the delay in reversing this decision — have made it easier for dangerous people to get dangerous weapons.”
The NRA has itself acknowledged that export munitions regulated by the State Department are “generally treated more strictly, with national and international security considerations trumping all other factors in the granting of licenses,” while export items regulated by the Department of Commerce are subject to “more flexible” regulation.
With a narrow lens on the domestic gun violence crisis, the House passed an assault weapon ban in July at Biden’s urging. The bill has not moved in the Senate.
During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill, a Republican member raised an amendment to allow the sale of assault weapons within 10 miles of the border with Mexico, in part to make up for the defunding of law enforcement agencies in the region — a common, though false, Republican talking point.
Democrats defeated the amendment, with some Democrats arguing that the federal government was doing all it could to protect the border and Democrats voted repeatedly to fund the police. They did not connect the sales of U.S. weapons to the violence that pushes people to flee their home countries and arrive at U.S. borders, Lindsay-Poland said.
“The Democrats just don’t offer that analysis,” he said, “and the policy remedies follow that poor analysis.”