September 28, 2022

Warren, Murphy, Castro, Torres Demand Answers from Commerce Department about Troubling Increase in Approvals of Assault Weapon Exports

Commerce Approved $15.7 Billion in Firearms Export Licenses and Denied Only 0.4% of Applications Since Taking Over Approvals from State Department

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and U.S. Representatives Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) and Norma Torres (D-Calif..) sent a letter to Gina Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce, calling out the Commerce Department for its 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 are calling on the Commerce Department to revise its approach to assault weapons exports and to answer questions about its export license approvals. 

“We are writing with grave concern about Commerce Department actions that have weakened oversight of assault weapon and high-capacity magazine exports, padding the gun industry’s profits while putting deadly weapons in the hands of corrupt actors around the world. As Democrats in Congress work to crack down on the deadly use of these weapons on our streets, your agency approved nearly $16 billion in firearms export licenses in the first 16 months after it took over authority over small arms exports from the State Department… we urge you to modify your approach to align with President Biden’s gun safety agenda,” wrote the lawmakers. 

Weapons manufacturers need an export license to sell assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in other countries, and in 2020, the Trump administration transferred licensing authority from the State Department, which has deep expertise in foreign instability, human rights abuses, and terrorism, to the Commerce Department – a move heralded by the National Rifle Association as making the approval process more “business friendly”. During the 2020 Presidential campaign, President Biden promised to transfer licensing authority back to the State Department – but it has not yet happened. 

In the first 16 months since the Commerce Department took over firearm export licensing, it approved nearly $16 billion in licenses – a 30% increase from the State Department’s rate of approval – while denying only 0.4% of applications. The shift in licensing authority has weakened congressional oversight over arms exports – while the State Department was required to notify Congress of export license approvals for firearms valued at more than $1 million and Congress had the power to disapprove licenses, the same reporting requirements do not exist under the Commerce Department. 

The lawmakers note that while the Commerce Department has broad authority to block firearm export licenses by weighing industry benefits against threats to national security, foreign policy, human rights, and crime control, it has approved nearly all license applications and put assault weapons in the hands of bad actors. And while this issue began under the previous administration, there is little evidence that the Commerce Department has imposed tougher export standards since Secretary Raimondo was confirmed as Secretary. 

Given this troubling data and concerns that the Commerce Department is helping to pad gun industry profits instead of supporting President Biden’s gun safety agenda and commitment to returning firearm export licensing authority to the State Department, the lawmakers are calling on the Commerce Department to answer a set of questions about its current firearm licensing approval process and provide them comprehensive data by October 28, 2022.

Senator Warren has led efforts to hold the Biden administration accountable to its gun safety agenda. In July 2022, at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, Senator Warren 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 and called on the Biden administration to fulfill its campaign promise to return assault weapons exports oversight to the State Department.