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The U.S. Is Flooding the World With Guns. Congress Can Stop That.

Gun exports reached record levels in 2017 and again in 2018. Can Congress stop Trump from loosening the rules even further?

People look at handguns as thousands of customers and hundreds of dealers sell, show, and buy guns and other items during The Nation's Gun Show at the Dulles Expo Center which is the first major gun show in the area since the Oregon shooting in Chantilly, VA on Saturday, October 03, 2015. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

People look at handguns as thousands of customers and hundreds of dealers sell, show, and buy guns and other items during The Nation's Gun Show at the Dulles Expo Center which is the first major gun show in the area since the Oregon shooting in Chantilly, VA on Saturday, October 03, 2015. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

When gun exporters and importers gather at a trade conference at the Trump Hotel in Washington later this month, they will confront mixed trends in their industry. 

Gun manufacturing in the United States fell sharply in the first year of the Trump presidency, by more than 27 percent — a change widely attributed to gun buyers’ confidence that Trump would maintain or expand commercial access to firearms, limiting the impulse to stock up over a short period of time. Gun imports into the United States have also dropped significantly, with pistol imports falling by over 20 percent from 2016 to 2018. 

But reduced gun production was partly compensated by a record level of U.S. gun exports to other nations, which grew by nearly 30 percent in 2017. U.S. gun companies dramatically increased their firearms exports globally — to 488,300 guns in 2017, more than in any year on record, according to a report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). The United States exported even more firearms in 2018, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, and the Trump administration seeks to expand such exports even more.

Last year, the administration proposed a regulatory change to transfer the export licensing of guns to the much looser rules of the Commerce Department, which industry leaders expect will “significantly expand their opportunities,” while removing congressional oversight and severely reducing the capacity to control the end uses of exported weapons. 

The proposed rule would apply to sniper rifles, semi-automatic assault rifles, and other weapons used in warfare around the world. The change would also effectively deregulate the production of 3D-printed weapons, which are currently considered exports. 

But the proposed change was set back on July 11, when the House of Representatives approved an amendment sponsored by Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA) to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that prohibits taking gun exports off the State Department’s U.S. Munitions List. 

The State Department Trashed Its Own Authority to Control Weapons Sales

The growth in U.S. gun sales outside the country occurred as the Trump administration’s weapons export licensing agency was understaffed and in devastating disarray, according to a State Department Inspector General report in February. 

The report found that the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, which reviews and issues licenses to export weaponry, was 28 percent understaffed. The agency also had failed to notify Congress of arms sales as required by law, scrapped a unit for training officers, failed to consult the State Department’s regional and human rights bureaus on proposed arms exports, and mistakenly approved an export license (later revoked) for more than a billion dollars of firearms to the Philippines. 

Philippines police and military forces are credibly alleged to have committed thousands of extrajudicial killings under current President Rodrigo Duterte. Yet the United States shipped more than 86,000 semiautomatic handguns to the Philippines in 2018, more than six times as many as the previous year, according to U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) records. 

Nearly all of these weapons were Glock handguns exported from Georgia, a comparison of ATF and Census Bureau data reveals. Like other European gun producers, Glock has much moved its production from Austria to the United States to take advantage of the enormous U.S. police and civilian market as well as looser export laws. 

Practically the entirety of the uptick in 2017 in foreign gun sales comes from pistols exported by New Hampshire-based Sig Sauer Inc., which more than doubled in number from 2016 to 177,414 pistols in 2017. Sig Sauer accounted for 64 percent of all pistols exported from the U.S. in 2017. 

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New Hampshire pistol exports amounted to $41.8 million in 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. (Sig Sauer was virtually the only company to export pistols from New Hampshire in 2017, according to the ATF report.) The largest buyers were Thailand ($15 million), followed by United Arab Emirates (UAE, at $4.8 million), Canada, and Germany. 

Foreign Gun Sales Were Even Higher in 2018

ATF doesn’t publish detailed gun manufacturing and export data until a full year has passed, but the Census Bureau and U.S. International Trade Commission post the data monthly. Exports accounted for 6 percent of U.S. gun production in 2017, a portion that nearly doubled from 2016, when it was only 3.3 percent. The increased exports in 2018 suggest that portion has grown even more. 

And total pistol exports from New Hampshire in 2018 grew to more than $64 million, about half more than in 2017. The biggest buyers in 2018 were Thailand — which received a whopping $39.5 million worth of pistols from New Hampshire — and UAE, which purchased $5.9 million worth. The UAE is waging war in Yemen, which has led to thousands of deaths and a humanitarian catastrophe.

In 2017, Congress was notified of two licenses for exporting 9mm pistols to Thailand valued at $93.9 million, as well as $48.6 million for five export licenses in various types of firearms to UAE. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. exported more than 72 million bullets (valued at $125 million) to Afghanistan in 2018, far more than any other country, and more than eight times the dollar value of bullets exported to Afghanistan in 2017. Most of the ammunition was exported to Afghanistan from Kentucky and Indiana, Census Bureau data shows.

Four of the top ten recipients of ammunition last year were countries with relatively low levels of violence (Canada, Australia, Germany, and UK). But Israel received more than $26 million worth of bullets, while the Philippines received more than $14 million in ammo (most of it exported from Missouri). 

Policy Options

Democrats in the House of Representatives have proposed legislation to stem gun violence, including proposals to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Such measures would have significant impacts in Mexico, where criminal organizations rely heavily on such weaponry, which can be purchased easily in the United States and trafficked over the border.

But it is crucial that the House Democratic majority also consider action to control and reduce the explosive growth of weapons exports to countries all over the world. The NDAA amendment approved by the House to prohibit the transfer of gun export licensing to the Commerce Department is an important step. 

In May, more than 100 organizations called on Congress to stop the regulatory change, even proposing to prohibit the change through an NDAA amendment. The House amendment is part of the 1,200-plus-page military spending bill that will go to conference to be reconciled with the Senate version of the NDAA, which did not address gun export rules. The bill then goes to the White House for the president’s signature. 

More is required. Congress should hold hearings on the devastating atrocities committed with these weapons and fund (and require) the State Department to adequately control weapons export licenses. Organizations working to reduce gun violence should expand their sights to stopping violence from U.S. guns exported beyond our militarized borders. The lives of people all over the world hang in the balance.

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John Lindsay-Poland

John Lindsay-Poland is a writer, activist, researcher and analyst focused on human rights and demilitarization, especially in the Americas. He has written about, researched and organized action for human rights and demilitarization of US policy in Latin America for 30 years. Currently he coordinates Stop US Arms to Mexico, a project of Global Exchange, and serves as California Healing Justice Associate of the American Friends Service Committee, with a focus on police demilitarization.

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