Trump’s State Department Trashes its Authority to Control Lethal Weapons Sales
By John Lindsay-Poland
Gun manufacturing in the United States fell sharply in the first year of the Trump presidency, by more than 27%, a change widely attributed to gun buyers’ confidence that Trump would maintain or expand commercial access to firearms. But the reduction was partly compensated by a record level of U.S. gun exports to other nations, which grew by nearly 30%.
And the United States exported even more firearms in 2018, according to preliminary data.
U.S. companies that export firearms dramatically increased their gun exports globally – to 488,300 guns in 2017 – more than in any year on record, according to a recently released report by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).
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 new State Department Inspector General report. The report found that that the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, which reviews and issues licenses to export weaponry, was 28% 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 in recent years. Yet the United States shipped more than 86,000 semiautomatic handguns to the Philippines in 2018, over six times as many as the previous year according to International Trade Commission records. Nearly all of these weapons were Glock handguns exported from Georgia, a comparison of ATF and Census Bureau data reveals.
The Trump administration currently seeks to transfer export licensing of guns, including assault rifles, to 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 change would also effectively de-regulate the production of 3D-printed weapons, which are currently considered exports.
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% of all pistols exported from the U.S. in 2017.
Sig Sauer CEO Ron Cohen and two other company officials were charged in October with illegally exporting 38,000 weapons from Germany to Colombia, via the company’s New Hampshire location. Prosecutors sought a $14.8 million fine, and the officials agreed to pay large fines in lieu of jail times, Agence France Press reported.
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 Even Higher in 2018
ATF doesn’t publish detailed gun export data until a full year has passed, but the Census Bureau and U.S. International Trade Commission post the data monthly. 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.
Although exports accounted for only 6% of U.S. gun production in 2017, that portion nearly doubled from 2016, when it was only 3.3%. The increased exports in 2018 suggest that portion has grown even more.
The U.S. exported more than $125 million worth of bullets to Afghanistan in 2018, far more than any other country, and more than eight times the amount 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 over $26 million worth of bullets, while the Philippines received more than $14 million in ammo (most of it exported from Missouri).
As the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives considers legislation to stem gun violence, including proposals to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, it is crucial that they also consider action to control and reduce the explosive growth of weapons exports to countries all over the world.
One such a proposal is a bill by Representative Norma Torres (D-CA) to prohibit the transfer of gun export licensing from the State Department to Commerce Department. Several lawmakers, led by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), have proposed similar legislation in the Senate.
More is required. Congress should hold hearings on the devastating atrocities committed with these weapons. 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.
John Lindsay-Poland coordinates the project to Stop US Arms to Mexico of Global Exchange.