January 24, 2024

Warren, Durbin, Castro, Torres to Commerce Department: Prevent Gun Violence Abroad by Strengthening Firearm Export Controls

Lawmakers Recommend Commerce Act to Reform Firearm License Approval and Monitoring Policies 

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and U.S. Representatives Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, and Norma Torres (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, calling on the Department of Commerce (Commerce) to incorporate a set of recommendations from the lawmakers to strengthen export controls and end-use checks for firearm exports to crack down on the unnecessary export of lethal weapons used in brutal killings abroad. The letter comes as Commerce prepares for the expiration of its 90-day pause on export approvals of certain firearms and related components. 

“The number of firearms export license approvals skyrocketed when the Trump Administration transferred firearms export control authority from the State Department to Commerce…. While we continue to support returning all firearms export controls to the State Department, we urge the Department to incorporate the recommendations in this letter as part of its policy review in order to strengthen export controls and end-use checks,” wrote the lawmakers. 

On October 27, 2023, Commerce announced a 90-day pause of export license approvals for certain assault weapons and other firearms transferred by the Trump administration from the State Department’s jurisdiction to Commerce. That pause is scheduled to expire on January 25, 2024.

“Commerce’s decision to initiate the pause and review process was welcome, but sorely needed… new data show that from March 9, 2020 (the date of the Trump administration’s transfer) to June 30, 2023, Commerce approved nearly 25,000 firearms export licenses with a total value of $34.7 billion, or roughly $10.5 billion per year. This represents a more than $1 billion increase in the annual value of license approvals as compared to the time period when the State Department controlled these approvals,” continued the lawmakers.

The lawmakers referenced recent reporting detailing the extent to which Commerce has worked with the National Sports Shooting Foundation and other industry trade groups to court foreign buyers for American-made firearms, despite the Biden administration’s efforts to stem the tide of gun violence at home.

The lawmakers detailed evidence of American-made firearms contributing to violence in countries such as Thailand, El Salvador, and Mexico. They also noted “evidence to suggest that soldiers and civilian militias in Israel are using American-made semi-automatic weapons to perpetrate shocking violence against Palestinian civilians.” The risks to civilians have likely increased after the Israeli government loosened gun ownership laws, authorizing “‘temporary licensing official(s)’ with only a single day of training to approve ‘anywhere from hundreds to thousands of firearm licenses’ over a few weeks.” 

The lawmakers called for reversing the Trump administration’s decision and returning all firearms export controls to the State Department. However, given the seriousness and scale of the problem, the lawmakers are calling on Commerce to make significant changes in the interim to its export license approval and monitoring policies, as well as export promotion policies, including: 

  1. Recognizing in a formal policy statement that firearms are the only lethal weapons on the Commerce Control List and asserting that it is a foreign policy interest of the U.S. to restrain the global proliferation of these weapons.
  2. Publicly posting requirements for end-use certification of exported semi-automatic firearms and committing to pre- and post-shipment transparency and end-use monitoring. 
  3. Adding “crime control” to the list of criteria systematically considered by Commerce prior to approving a firearms export license. 
  4. Taking advantage of existing, comprehensive sources (such as the State Department’s International Vetting and Security Tracking-cloud system) when reviewing license applications to identify problematic proposed end users.
  5. Encouraging countries of particular concern to fully participate in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF’s) eTrace system to better track the use of U.S.-sourced firearms in criminal activity and facilitating programs to develop such capacities in countries of concern.
  6. Reducing export license validity from four years to one year, particularly for destinations of concern.
  7. Systematically reviewing licenses approved for export to countries importing very high numbers of firearms and confirming the identities of end users of these weapons.
  8. Capping exports of firearms to civilian buyers, and aggressively enforcing policies prohibiting transfers to security forces with an elevated risk of human rights abuse.
  9. Capping the number of exported firearms that can be covered by any single export license, particularly for destinations of concern, and distinguishing between firearms destined for security forces of trusted allies versus civilians or commercial retailers.
  10. Ending Commerce’s involvement in the SHOT Show and other firearms export promotion activities that can lead to, and even enable, gun violence and death abroad.
  11. Using its authority under the Export Control Reform Act of 2018 to issue all policy changes stemming from the review process as final rules to ensure prompt implementation. 

“The Commerce Department’s decision to pause new firearm export approvals and promotion is welcome news. We urge the Commerce Department to implement our recommendations in its review of its export policies, and if necessary, to extend the temporary pause as needed to reconsider its export policies as rigorously as possible,” concluded the lawmakers. 

The lawmakers are also asking Commerce to answer a set of questions about its plans concerning export licenses by February 7, 2024. 

Senator Warren has led efforts to hold the Department of Commerce accountable for its lackluster oversight of firearms exports, which contradicts the Biden administration’s gun safety agenda:

  • In September 2023, Senator Warren and Representatives Castro, Norma Torres (D-Calif.), and Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to Secretary Raimondo, 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 October 2022, Senator Warren joined Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in a letter to President Biden calling for the Administration to return oversight of the export of firearms, including ghost guns, and their technical data to the Department of State. 
  • In September 2022, Senators Warren and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Representatives Castro and Torres sent a letter to Secretary Raimondo, calling out Commerce 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 called on Commerce to revise its approach to assault weapons exports and to answer questions about its export license approvals. 
  • 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.