At Hearing, Warren Raises Concerns about Commerce Department's Approval of $15.7 Billion in Military-Style Assault Weapons Exports
Warren: “Can you explain how increasing assault weapons export licenses by 30% and turning down less than one-half of one percent of applications is consistent with the President’s stated objectives? Is the Commerce Department working for the President or working for the gun industry here?”
Washington, D.C. – Today, at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned Alan Estevez, Under Secretary for Industry and Security at the Department of Commerce about the agency’s lax approach to export controls of military-style assault weapons like the one used on the Fourth of July to kill seven people in Highland Park, Illinois. Senator Warren called on the Biden administration to fulfill a campaign promise to return assault weapons exports to the control of the U.S. Department of State in order to increase oversight of these firearm exports.
In 2020, the Trump administration implemented regulations that changed export controls of assault weapons and their ammunition and accessories by transferring them from the United States Munitions List (USML), which is administered by the State Department, to the Commerce Control List, which is administered by the Commerce Department. The Commerce Control List’s export requirements are typically seen as less strict and do not provide the same authorities for Congress to block licenses. During the 2020 presidential campaign, President Biden committed to keeping assault weapons under State Department control, but the Biden administration has not taken action to return assault weapons to the USML.
At the hearing, Senator Warren highlighted that the Commerce Department has approved $15.7 billion in assault weapons export licenses, an increase of 30% compared to the State Department. The Commerce Department has also turned down less than one-half of one percent of applications.
Transcript: Advancing National Security and Foreign
Policy Through Export Controls: Oversight of the Bureau of Industry and
U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
Thursday, July 14, 2022
Senator Elizabeth Warren: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. So I want to ask specifically about military-style assault weapons like the one used on the Fourth of July to kill seven people in Highland Park.
Congress should reinstate the assault weapons ban to keep these guns off our streets. But we shouldn’t be shipping them to just anyone overseas either. In fact, companies need licenses from the federal government to sell assault weapons overseas, these are called an export license. But in 2020, the Trump administration made it easier to get that permission by putting the Commerce Department in charge, instead of the State Department, where those permissions had always resided.
This shift is important. The State Department has deep expertise in foreign instability, human rights abuses, and terrorism. The Commerce Department specializes in promoting U.S. industry overseas – even the gun industry.
In the 2020 campaign, President Biden promised to reverse the Trump decision and put export control back with the State Department. But as of today, that has not happened.
So, Under Secretary Estevez, how many billions of dollars in assault weapons sales has Commerce approved since it took over export control in March 2020?
Under Secretary Alan Estevez, Department of Commerce: I will have to get back to you on the exact amount, Senator. So I’ll get you-
Senator Warren: -Do you want to do an estimate?
Under Secretary Estevez: Uh.
Secretary Warren: I think your records show-
Under Secretary Estevez: -I think the website shows 15 billion.
Senator Warren: 15.7 billion.
Under Secretary Estevez: All types of weapons, not just assault weapons.
Senator Warren: So, Commerce approved $15.7B in weapons sales in its first 16 months on the job. And by comparison, the State Department, when the State Department was making these decisions, it approved $12B on average in the same time period – including some weapons that never got transferred to Commerce. So, if you do the math—that’s about a 30% increase.
That is a huge boon to the gun industry. The $15.7B in Commerce-approved exports is nearly as large as the current size of the entire $19B U.S. gun manufacturing industry.
Export control law gives Commerce a lot of authority to disapprove license requests, including if such weapons sales threaten our national security or undermine our foreign policy.
So, Under Secretary Estevez, how often since March 2020 has the Commerce Department actually denied the gun industry’s requests to export these assault weapons?
Under Secretary Estevez: So, Senator, a couple of things. And it is a small percentage. I get it, I don’t have a percentage. But can I answer a couple of other points?
Senator Warren: Well-
Under Secretary Estevez: -The State Department is part of my review process. State Department can stop a sale.
Senator Warren: I am asking now that you have the approval process, what have you done? How many have you disapproved in that time period? Do you know the number?
Under Secretary Estevez: I do not know.
Senator Warren: It’s four-tenths of one percent. That is less than one-half of one percent of the applications were disapproved. Which sounds a lot like the Commerce Department is rubber stamping these license applications, including to places like Mexico, where corruption puts these weapons in the hands of criminals, or the Philippines, where there are multiple reports of security forces shooting civilians.
Now, President Biden has stated clearly that he supports cracking down on assault weapons – both at home and overseas.
So let me ask Under Secretary Estevez, can you explain how increasing assault weapons export licenses by 30% and turning down less than one-half of one percent of applications is consistent with the President’s stated objectives? Is the Commerce Department working for the President or working for the gun industry here?
Under Secretary Estevez: Senator, that also includes sales to people like Ukraine that are using those weapons against the Russians.
Senator Warren: I have no doubt.
Under Secretary Estevez: So, this is an inter-agency process now that has moved to Commerce. There’s a power of the Department of State that brings State’s jurisdiction to that discussion, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. So it’s an inter-agency process that-
Senator Warren: Wait, wait a minute-
Under Secretary Estevez: -that approves gun-
Senator Warren: Excuse me Under Secretary-
Under Secretary Estevez: -it’s not just the Commerce Department.
Senator Warren: Excuse me, what happened was authority was transferred to the Commerce Department and what has happened is that it has a minuscule disapproval rate and the weapons sales have gone up dramatically.
Look, the Commerce Department is helping put more assault weapons in more hands and this needs to stop. It’s time to put overseas gun sales back in the hands of the State Department where someone can exercise better judgment.
Thank you Mr. Chairman.
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