On an awful day in March 2022, gangs in El Salvador went on a rampage and killed 62 people, a new record for the country. That death toll exceeds even the horrific 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nev., the U.S. record-holder, which killed 58 people along with the gunman. While these two incidents differ in important ways, the guns that caused so many deaths share a common origin: they were manufactured in the United States. In fact, the United States is exporting death to its neighbors.
Since 2020, U.S. firearms exports have been regulated as part of the Commerce Control List (CCL), which is administered by the Department of Commerce. The CCL is meant to accommodate “dual-use” items, which can have both civilian and military applications. Before 2020, the State Department regulated firearms under the U.S. Munitions List (USML) Categories I-III. While proponents of the change from the State Department to the Commerce Department have argued that controls on firearms exports are at least as strong as they were under the previous system, the data indicates otherwise. In the last Congress, Representatives Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Norma Torres (D-CA), and Albio Sires (D-NJ) introduced of the Americas Regional Monitoring of Arms Sales (ARMAS) Act to improve transparency and accountability in arms exports in the region. Although this legislation is a step in the right direction, it stops short of reverting administration of semi-automatic firearms to the State Department.
At the same time, President Joe Biden has yet to fulfill his campaign promise of doing the same, and while Congress and the executive branch stall the situation in Central America shows the dire impact these weapons can have and demands more rigorous licensing standards. To begin to address these issues, the administration needs to conduct more end-user checks, provide increased transparency on exports, and take more precautions against diversion and misuse.
Firearm-Fueled Violence in Central America
Though long-term violence trends in Central America overall have improved slightly in recent years, people living in the region’s urban areas still face some of the world’s highest rates of violence. The steady stream of weapons sourced from the United States makes the problem worse. In March 2022, companies in the United States exported more semi-automatic firearms to El Salvador than in any other month since March 2018, according to data provided by the United States International Trade Commission. In fact, U.S. semi-automatic firearms exports worldwide quadrupled from 2010-2020, jumping from around 100,000 pistols, and 9,000 rifles to around 404,000 pistols and 23,500 rifles over the period. In 2022, exports of semi-automatic rifles (including assault weapons like the AR-15 rifle) hit the highest number since the federal government began specifically reporting on the export of semi-automatic firearms in 2005.
Meanwhile, the epidemic of horrific violence that asylum-seekers from Central America are fleeing hasn’t relented. Guatemala remains saturated with weapons: in a country of 17 million people (5 million boys and men between ages 15-64), more than 500,000 guns are registered, though there are likely many more unregistered weapons. And still, the United States continues to knowingly fuel this oversaturation of weapons in the region. El Salvador’s homicide rate has declined in recent years, but abuses by security forces continue, and over 90 percent of homicides are shootings. For comparison, the homicide by shooting rate in the United States is 60 percent and 27 percent in Canada.
While many of the weapons used in crime are smuggled, one of the mechanisms for firearms proliferation is surprisingly straightforward – companies produce guns in the United States or import them from other countries and sell them to buyers in Central America. From there, the guns may or may not stay with the original purchaser: Sometimes they are sold commercially in the importing country, sometimes they are stolen and diverted to the illicit market. In some known cases, police or other security agents have pilfered guns from a government-controlled armory and resold them on the black market. In other instances, official security forces misuse the weapons to perpetrate human rights violations.
The Firearms Licensing Regime isn’t Working
The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) licenses firearm exports from the United States, effectively signaling the government’s assessment that the destination is a safe place to send guns. BIS routinely screens firearms export license applications for risks related to national security and regional stability, and if no flags are raised by BIS or other agencies, then the sale goes through. But there is no specific screening for diversion, and the crime control screening for potential police abuse is discretionary. The clear picture about gun violence, homicide, and human rights abuse in Central America suggest a tougher approach is warranted. For example, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), more than half of the firearms that were recovered from crime scenes in Guatemala originated in authorized exports from the United States – and the figure remains around 50 percent for Central America as a whole. Another GAO report notes firearms originating in the United States account for 70 percent of the firearms recovered and traced from crimes in Mexico – half of which had crossed the border legally. John Lindsay-Poland, an expert from the nonprofit Stop US Arms to Mexico called the Biden administration’s performance on this topic “dangerous.”
The State Department’s most recent annual country reports, which were released in April 2022, list “unlawful and arbitrary killings” as a significant human rights issue in most Central American countries, including Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua. The reports detail the political killings of journalists, activists, and human rights defenders – in some cases, like Guatemala, the reports attribute deaths to gunshot wounds.
But reducing the flood of weapons into the region isn’t even a part of the current U.S. strategy. When the Biden administration vowed last summer to address the “root causes” of migration in Central America, there was no mention either of gun violence or of the steady supply of firearms that support extortion demands and fuel killing sprees like the recent one in El Salvador. The United States has committed itself to reducing government corruption, but the closest the administration even comes to talking about gun exports themselves is in the following passage in one National Security Council document: “The United States will work with governments to increase capacity of law enforcement and other security forces to address the unique transnational and national threats to the region.” Instead of reducing arms exports and countering the problem at its source, this policy aligns neatly with the profit motives of gun manufacturers that make money from gun exports.
The Commerce Department and State Department maintain watch lists against which they check prospective importers, and end-use validation programs are intended to ensure that the entity vetted and licensed to receive the weapons has retained control of them, instead of (for example) selling them to a local cartel. Yet, according to the GAO, only two end-use checks have been conducted since 2020, when BIS took over the State Department’s role of vetting firearm exports. By contrast, during FY2020 the State Department’s Blue Lantern program conducted 18 end-use checks in the region. Despite the administration’s concerns about strengthening security and good governance in the region, the lack of specific programs and metrics related to firearms trafficking led the GAO to conclude that “disrupting firearms trafficking is not an explicit US objective in Central America.”
The Trump-era change in arms export control, shifting administration of semi-automatic firearms from the State Department to the Commerce Department, was justified in part as a way for U.S. arms manufacturers to expedite their exports. It seems to be working, and now people in Central America are suffering the consequences of a regulatory framework focused on increasing exports, rather than reducing risk. In 2020, candidate Biden pledged to revert control of firearm export licenses back to the State Department, but President Biden’s administration appears to have no such plans. That must change.
In September, several members of Congress sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo calling for her to rein in surging firearm exports. More recently, Representatives Castro, Torres, and Sires led the introduction of the ARMAS Act in the 117th Congress, which would have allowed for Congressional monitoring and blocking of firearms exports, mandated more detailed reporting for exports to the Bahamas, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago and added a mandate for an interagency strategy to address arms trafficking issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. While these efforts are certainly warranted, the pathway for it to become law is slim even if it’s reintroduced, and if passed would represent just the first step in addressing an issue that merits a much greater effort.
The Commerce Department is focused on increasing U.S. exports of goods and services to the rest of the world, but firearms are different from cars and eggplants – even among “dual-use” items like radar or aircraft parts, guns stand out as particularly dangerous because they are easily diverted to the illicit market, often perpetrate violence, and carry a long shelf-life. The Commerce Department is either not equipped or not appropriately incentivized to conduct the necessary oversight. It also has weaker reporting requirements – a 2022 rule put in place to increase transparency is triggered when a proposed sale is valued at $4 million or more, while exports of items on the USML must be reported when the deal value is $1 million.
U.S. inaction on firearms exports plays a meaningful part in fueling horrific levels of violence, tearing apart families and lives, and forcing thousands to flee their homes and embark on dangerous journeys to find safety. The Biden administration must make good on its promise to revert control of firearms exports back to the State Department, which has the expertise, experience, and structural incentives to safely manage them.