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U.S. freezes firearm exports, reviews backing of industry

By Michael Riley Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON – The Commerce Department is halting exports of most U.S.-made firearms for 90 days and reviewing its support of the country’s biggest gun trade show to ensure such backing “does not undermine U.S. policy interests” – steps that could slow two decades of growth of gun sales abroad.

The department late Friday announced the pause in approval of new export licenses for the commercial sale of semiautomatic and non-automatic firearms around the world. The freeze doesn’t apply to Israel, Ukraine and about 40 other countries that are part of an export-control agreement. But it does cover some of the biggest markets for American gunmakers, including Brazil, Thailand and Guatemala, where a Bloomberg News investigation documented the impact U.S. government support for weapons sales has had on those countries.

“The review will be conducted with urgency and will enable the Department to more effectively assess and mitigate risk of firearms being diverted to entities or activities that promote regional instability, violate human rights, or fuel criminal activities,” the Department said in announcing the pause.

While the department gave no indication of what long-term changes it might make, the review could alter or even reverse a set of notably pro-industry policies that have helped domestic manufacturers expand sales abroad.

Those include shifting in 2020 the oversight of most commercial gun exports from the State Department to the business-friendly Department of Commerce and its decadelong support for the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show, known as SHOT Show, a gun marketing expo that occurs every January in Las Vegas.

Critics of the rule change praised the department’s decision.

“For too long, firearms from the United States have contributed to violence and instability abroad,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, who with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has sought answers for more than a year from the Biden administration about the increase in approvals of assault weapons export licenses.

“This 90-day pause and review on small arms exports is a welcome announcement by the Commerce Department,” added Castro. “I look forward to engaging with the Department during this review so U.S. policy moves in the right direction.”

The gun industry’s successful strategies to increase global sales of its products – in combination with friendly U.S. policies – have been the subject of a monthslong investigation by Bloomberg. The investigation began in July with an examination of gun sales to Thailand, where a U.S.-made semiautomatic pistol was used last year in one of the world’s worst mass killings. A story published Oct. 19 documented the lavish support the Commerce Department gives SHOT Show, including steering more than 3,200 international buyers to the event this year.

The Commerce Department declined to comment further when asked to explain the reason for the pause and for details of its review of the support it provides SHOT Show.

Two decades ago, the U.S. sold few guns internationally. However, as domestic manufacturers looked for new markets, sales of rapid fire and military-style firearms have grown rapidly, with a total of more than 3.7 million sold since 2005.

Many of the guns are exported to countries plagued by skyrocketing gun crime, while others go to authoritarian regimes, with many of the sales supported by Democratic and Republican presidents alike. But some Democrats in Congress have recently grown more vocal in the criticism of those sales.

Castro and other lawmakers sharply questioned Biden administration officials in two hearings last year about the 2020 rule change. He was among several Democrats who recently introduced the Americas Regional Monitoring of Armed Sales (ARMAS) Act, legislation that seeks to disrupt firearms trafficking from the U.S. to Latin America and the Caribbean.