September 07, 2023

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

Lawmakers Call on Secretary Gina Raimondo to Publish Updated Data on Approvals of Assault Weapons Export Licenses, Respond to Their September 2022 Questions

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and U.S. Representatives Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Norma Torres (D-Calif.), and Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.) 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. 

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.