Analysis | Why Gun Violence Has Become a Major US Export

It’s hard to think of a greater perversion of this country’s national interest, or a more morally grotesque public policy, than the murderous chain of corruption in Guatemala that is facilitated by the US Department of Commerce, detailed in a Bloomberg News report.

In 2020, the Trump administration, the ever-eager handmaiden to the gun industry, transferred regulatory authority for firearm exports from the US Department of State, which ideally prioritizes democracy, human rights and rule of law, to the Commerce department, which is tasked with helping companies make a buck. The National Rifle Association, which champions the unregulated sales that directly facilitate gun crimes in the US, was naturally eager to reduce regulation of sales abroad. The NRA described the change as “among the most important pro-gun initiatives by the Trump administration to date.”  

As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden pledged to reverse the policy. More than halfway through his term as president he hasn’t. The costs have been grave.

The correlation between more guns and more gun violence is well established in the US. But it’s not an exclusively American phenomenon. Guatemala is now getting a bitter taste. With the Commerce Department allowing far more gun exports than the State Department did violence is rising in the Central American country, producing a chain reaction that boomerangs back home.  US gun sales in Guatemala drive criminal violence. Criminal violence in Guatemala, in turn, drives desperate migrants to the US border.

Guatemalan imports of US semiautomatic firearms “jumped from an average of about 3,600 per year in the 2010s to more than 10,000 in 2021, and nearly 20,000 in 2022,” Bloomberg’s Monte Reel reported. In the past three years during which gun flows into the country spiked, “the number of murders in Guatemala has risen annually, after 11 straight years of decline. More than 80% have involved firearms,” Reel reported.

Who could have guessed that flooding guns into a small nation with a feeble justice system, widespread corruption and active criminal gangs would have negative results? (It’s about as surprising as the NRA and its allies condemning the migration of asylum seekers to the US border — a byproduct of the international gun trade that they support.)

Reel described how US sales fuel corruption and violence in Guatemala: 

When a gun is confiscated by police and traced back to a national database, the listed owner of the gun—a commercial gun dealer, or a private security company, or even a governmental agency—files a report, after the fact, claiming the firearm in question was stolen or simply lost. That Glock carried by the hit man? It was imported in a shipment destined for the Guatemalan national police, whose administrators reported the pistol stolen from a warehouse after the man’s arrest.

The Beretta used on the basketball court was registered to a gun store, which later claimed it was among 106 stolen firearms. The Smith & Wesson had been in a private security company’s warehouse, and after the pistol was found with the extortionist, the company reported that it was one of 236 guns that somehow had vanished from its arsenal.

In a letter last fall to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, several Democratic lawmakers noted, “your agency approved nearly $16 billion in firearms export licenses in the first 16 months after it took over authority over small arms exports from the State Department – a roughly 30 percent increase from the State Department’s rate of approval – while denying only 0.4 percent of applications.”

US exports of semiautomatic firearms have doubled in the past six years. As Bloomberg reported in July, “Commerce employees help recruit foreign buyers, accompany them at the industry’s premier exhibition in Las Vegas each year, and offer an online portal to pair them with US manufacturers.” An increased flow of guns to Thailand, Bloomberg reported , has also led to “corruption and weapons trafficking, while arming criminal syndicates.”

President Biden was vigorously endorsed  this week by prominent gun-safety groups. Last year, he signed into law the nation’s first major gun-safety legislation in decades. He continues to support banning the semiautomatic rifles often called “assault weapons” and ending private sales of guns to criminals and others without a background check.

Yet Biden still hasn’t reversed the Trump administration’s shift of gun export regulation from the State Department to Commerce. Meanwhile, US guns continue to fuel violence and instability in Central America. (They are also prized by criminal cartels in Mexico.) With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, no new gun safety legislation will get through Congress. Perhaps Biden should turn his attention to the violence that his administration is facilitating in Guatemala. 

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Maui Fires Show Climate Change’s Ugly Reach: Mark Gongloff

Congress Should Pass a Law Against Election Interference: Noah Feldman

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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