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us arms exports up during pandemic

US Gun Exports Have Spiked During the Pandemic

Words: John Lindsay-Poland
Pictures: Jay Rembert

In the first four months of new looser federal rules for exporting firearms, as the coronavirus battered the world, US weapons companies dramatically increased the global export of military rifles and handguns compared to the same period last year.

US companies exported more than 83,000 military rifles from March through July, more than two and a half times as many as were exported in the same period last year, according to trade data posted by the US International Trade Commission (ITC). Military rifles, which do not include fully automatic machine guns, were among the categories of firearm exports that transferred from State Department to Commerce Department oversight.

New Hampshire-based Sig Sauer Inc. led the export surge with a shipment to India of 27,400 military rifles worth $28 million, according to data from the ITC and US Census Bureau. A company in Nevada — possibly the Las Vegas-based Firearms Importer Manufacturer Exporter (FIME) Group — also shipped 10,445 military rifles to Tunisia in March. Thousands more military rifles each were shipped to Thailand (12,167), Oman (10,000), Kuwait (5,002), Lebanon (4,812), Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, Mexico, Afghanistan, and Colombia.

The 133,984 military rifles exported by the United States in 2019 were already more than in any previous year. The United States also shipped 3,908 machineguns — which remain under State Department oversight — to Turkey between March and May.

Oversight of firearm export licenses transferred from the State Department to the Commerce Department on March 9. The transfer applies to all non-automatic and semi-automatic firearms, including assault rifles, and eliminates a requirement to notify Congress of even large licenses for exporting such guns. One firearms industry insider, Kim Pritula, described the rule change in an email to Commerce Department officials as “a boon for the smaller companies in our industry” because of reduced exporter license fees. The email was released in response to a records request by the National Security Archive. But at least in its first few months, larger gun companies such as Sig Sauer and Glock appear to be profiting most from the change.

Mexico formed the National Guard last year, purportedly to address rising violence, but gun homicides have continued to increase to unprecedented rates.

Led by Sig Sauer and the Glock manufacturing facility in Smyrna, Georgia, US companies exported more than 220,000 handguns valued at more than $90 million in the first five months of the pandemic (March-July), nearly three times the number during the same period last year. Sig Sauer accounted for most of the exports, including $27 million worth of semi-automatic pistols exported to Thailand between May and July. Thailand for years has been a major customer of US gun exporters, purchasing more than 128,000 pistols in 2018. Mass shootings in Thailand this year have prompted calls for stricter gun control laws there.

Sig Sauer also exported 51,097 semi-automatic pistols worth more than $18 million to Mexico in April. The same month, Mexico’s National Guard disclosed that it was purchasing 50,000 Sig Sauer pistols. Mexico formed the National Guard last year, purportedly to address rising violence, but gun homicides have continued to increase to unprecedented rates.

Sig Sauer is owned by a German consortium but has consolidated its weapons production in the United States, which has much looser weapons export rules. It announced the closure of its German gun factory on June 4.

US companies also shipped thousands of handguns to other nations during the March-July period, including Thailand (96,053, primarily from Sig Sauer), Canada (24,878), Oman (10,003), the Philippines (6,293), Tunisia (5,312), Germany (2,821), Saudi Arabia (2,631), and Afghanistan (2,575).

The increased exports took place during a period of extensive shelter in place orders that restricted or suspended much US manufacturing. Gun producer Kimber Manufacturing stopped production at its facilities in New York and Alabama in late March. Chech gun producer CZ-USA, with a large factory in Kansas City, also temporarily suspended operations to comply with a local health order. Both companies received large federal PPP loans to support them during the coronavirus crisis — Kimber getting the largest loan available, between $5 and $10 million, while CZ-USA received between $1 and $2 million. Other arms companies have continued production at full bore. Some states, such as New Hampshire, did not implement shutdowns until late in March — or not at all for gun producers.

In March, United Arab Emirates — which is waging a war in Yemen that has led to more than 100,000 deaths — received a shipment of 500 artillery weapons (which may include mortar launchers) from an Arizona company, according to Census Bureau records.

Canada imported 50,392 centerfire rifles in the first five months of the pandemic. Although Canada enacted a ban on the importation and sale of assault rifles on May 1, the ban does not apply to most handguns nor to weapons purchases and imports for state forces. The rifles shipped to Canada represent nearly two-thirds of all US exports of centerfire rifles during the five months. None of these rifles were auto-loading (which could be assault rifles); most also were not bolt action rifles (which are not assault rifles), and instead were categorized as “other” centerfire rifles.

One area where US weapons exports have declined during the pandemic is gun ammunition, with a 10% decrease from last year — but still exporting 300 million bullets globally during a five-month period, according to ITC data. The biggest foreign buyers of US ammo during the pandemic have been Australia (72 million bullets from March through July), Canada (30 million), France (27 million), Germany (21 million), and Mexico (14 million). The surge in gun purchases in the United States has included ammunition and has backed up shipping by some bullet producers. But the international ammunition market is less monitored and regulated than firearms exports.

One thing is for sure: despite lockdowns, increased gun violence, and a global health crisis, and with looser regulations under Commerce Department oversight, the US gun export market is booming.

John Lindsay-Poland coordinates Stop US Arms to Mexico, a project of Global Exchange.

John Lindsay-Poland

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