President Joe Biden’s administration is inadvertently worsening the very problem it is trying to solve – the migrant crisis at the southern border – by facilitating a surge in gun-fueled violent crime in Latin America and beyond. The president, long a champion of gun safety, needs to move quickly to fix this policy failure.
The number of semiautomatic firearms exported from the U.S. has more than doubled since 2016. As a Bloomberg News investigation reveals, these sales have generated big profits for the gun industry – while causing mayhem throughout the region, including at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Guatemala is a case in point. Sales of U.S.-made semiautomatic firearms to Guatemala are more than five times higher than in the 2010s and nearly double what they were just two years ago. While U.S. gun manufacturers often sell to governments and security firms, the weapons soon find their way onto the black market and into the hands of criminals. After years of decline, murders in Guatemala have spiked, as have the numbers of Guatemalans fleeing to the U.S. Of the 2.2 million people who arrived at the southern border last year, 10% were Guatemalan, more than any other country save Mexico.
Far from seeking to stop the region’s gun crisis, the U.S. government has been complicit in it. The problem began with former president Donald Trump’s administration, which in 2020 took the licensing process for gun exports away from the State Department, which was responsible for reviewing applications for national security concerns, and gave it to the Commerce Department. The National Rifle Association called the switch “among the most important pro-gun initiatives by the Trump administration to date.”
Even before the agency switch, auditors warned that 95% of gun-export applications lacked required information and were not being properly vetted to consider U.S. national security concerns. The problem has worsened with Commerce in charge.
Instead of hitting the brakes on exports to troubled nations, department officials have been greasing the wheels, aggressively recruiting foreign buyers and connecting them with U.S. manufacturers. A department report even called demand for U.S. guns in nations suffering from political instability, gang violence and drug trafficking “a unique opportunity.” Not surprisingly, the value of export license approvals shot up 30% over historical averages.
While Guatemala has been a convenient target for the U.S. gun industry, it’s hardly alone. Mexico has long complained about the flow of U.S. firearms to drug traffickers, and across Central America and far beyond, countries are suffering from an influx of U.S. guns.
Solving this problem does not require new legislation. U.S. law already requires the government to ensure that it enforces export controls “to deter human rights violations and abuses, distance the U.S. from such violations and abuses, and avoid contributing to civil disorder in a country or region.” The willingness of both the Trump and Biden administrations to openly flout the will of Congress – undermining border security, costing taxpayers and endangering lives in the process – should be cause for bipartisan outrage.
The Biden administration needs to act swiftly. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who has earned a well-deserved reputation as an outstanding administrator both in Washington and as governor of Rhode Island, inherited this problem and allowed it to grow. She should waste no time in tightening export controls and putting the U.S. back in compliance with the law.
The administration should also bar exports to countries with corrupt and repressive law enforcement agencies and security forces. Sales to those countries create problems that inevitably end up on the U.S.’ doorstep. It is shortsighted in the extreme to think that mass sales of guns to troubled foreign nations is good for Americans.
Republicans who have assailed the Biden administration for failing to secure the southern border should be the most vocal in demanding action. Those that fail to do so only underscore what has long been true: Too many politicians fear the gun lobby and do its bidding, public safety – and now border security – be damned.
Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.