New US policy restricts export of guns, ammo to local dealers

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

US President Joe Biden. –

Last week, the Biden administration announced the imposition of new restrictions on firearm imports to curb the use of US-made civilian guns in crimes abroad.

The new regulations will now require experts to better vet their customers and tighten sales to 36 countries deemed “high-risk” for illicit diversion of semi-automatic firearms. Trinidad and Tobago is one of these 36 countries which will be affected.

The countries named by the Commerce Department are Bahamas, Bangladesh, Belize, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Mali, Mozambique, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Tajikistan, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, Vietnam, and Yemen.

In announcing the new measure, US Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said, “The days of exporting military-style weapons to civilians in unstable countries are over.

“Under our new review process, it will be much harder to export these weapons to civilians in countries that pose national security risks.”

In October 2023, the department issued a pause on most firearm experts from the US. On April 26, the department said it will lift the pause from May 30 when the new restrictions take effect.

The new interim final rule imposes restrictions on exports to non-governmental users in 36 countries where the US State Department has determined they are at high risk of diversions or misuse. The department will apply a “presumption of denial for commercial transactions” in those countries.

The Commerce Department expects the restrictions tied to the 36 countries to result in about a seven per cent reduction, or $40 million, out of the $600 million in average annual US firearm exports. The department will revoke some export licences and will cut some from four years to one-year licences, the Commerce Department said.

A Reuters report on October 27 said US companies that sell firearms, including Sturm Ruger and Co, Smith and Wesson and Vista Outdoor, could be affected by the export ban as well as overseas customers, including dealers. For shipments to government clients, exporters must name specific end users.

A US Department of State memorandum on the policy, dated April 8, said the department had agreed to chair a formal interagency working group to evaluate firearm diversion and misuse risks on a country-to-country basis.

Meanwhile, the Commerce Department said on April 26, in addition to the new rule, on July 1, its Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) will revoke currently valid licenses that authorise exports of firearms to non-government end users in the destinations identified by the State Department. The department also said it will accept public comments on the rule until July 1.

Newsday spoke with industry players on the new policy to explain its impact but they commented on the condition of anonymity.

“There will now be significant barriers to the importation of arms, ammunition, components and spare parts.

“With this new policy, you start with a presumption of denial of any application coming from any of the territories now deemed high risk.”

According to the process that was applied before, local gun dealers would contact their supplier in the US – ” the manufacturers themselves” – and apply for an import permit, signed and stamped by the commissioner of police and the gun manufacturer would then apply to the Department of Commerce for the export licence.

“But now, you start with a presumption of denial of any application from any of the 36 countries on the list. And, Trinidad and Tobago is there. So there is the presumption that your application will be denied if you are from the private sector.”

It was explained that there appeared to be a ”common misunderstanding” that the Government bought ammunition.

“They do not. What they do is they (the government agency such as the Defence Force, police or prison) send out a tender either sole-select or general, and go to a dealer.

“So when they (the US) invoke this….There is a dichotomy in the change in regulations which specifically separates the end user being a government agency and being from the private sector bearing in mind it will be less stringent for a government agency to get approval… However, they did not appreciate when the Government required ammunition, they went through a local supplier.

“So now they have to go through the same thing but they will have a slightly lower hurdle to cross but they, too, will have the presumption of denial.”

In its memorandum, the US State Department said it planned to lead interagency efforts to supplement the analysis with new qualitative and quantitative sources, including future data collection efforts to increase government understanding of the diversion of lawful and unlawful firearms.

It also said, “To determine how each of these risk factors applies to specific destination countries, State, in consultation with other US agencies, gathered relevant information from reliable sources, including US Government reports and international NGO and intergovernmental reports that assess these risk factors qualitatively and quantitatively.”

Acknowledging that guns coming into Trinidad and Tobago were mainly from the US, another industry player said the new policy was “the wrong fix.”

“The American government want more robust data on exports and re-exports… but this is the wrong fix. We do have a significant problem in Trinidad and Tobago but this is not the fix. Where is the evidence that the guns coming legally into Trinidad have been diverted?

“What happens when we cannot bring in ammunition?

“This is a devastation we brought on ourselves. We cannot fix a problem so we are fixing a problem we do not have.”

The source said the Trinidad and Tobago’s Government focused all its attention on legal firearms and legal firearm users and dealers but not the firearms coming in illegally on the black market. They should have focused on this not this constant attack on legal dealers and users.

“The guns used in the Pennywise incident were not semi-automatic guns. The guns on the streets are far superior to what the dealers are selling and more lethal.”

Caricom Impacs report raised concern

An April 26, 2023, report by Caricom’s implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS) and Small Arms Survey reported gang violence as driving the Caribbean’s high homicide levels fuelled by US firearms.

A week earlier, Caribbean leaders announced a “war on guns” which included a promise to ban assault weapons and stand with Mexico in its lawsuits against US arms manufacturers.

“We call on the United States of America to join the Caribbean in our war on guns and urgently adopt and take action to stop the illegal exportation of firearms and ammunition into the Caribbean,” a Caricom statement said. The statement came at the end of the two-day regional symposium to address crime and violence as a public health issue in Port of Spain.

According to the Caricom report, weapons made in the US contribute significantly to gang violence in the Caribbean. Data from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) shows that 80-99 per cent of weapons seized in the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, and Haiti in 2021 and submitted to the ATF for tracing were of US origin.

Since only those firearms recovered can be traced, the report suggested a standardised system for sharing firearm data between regional countries. “…There is little doubt that the United States is a major source of illicit firearms in the Caribbean, and probably the largest source in some states and territories,” the 178-page report said.

It also noted that gun traffickers used different methods to smuggle weapons into the Caribbean, frequently hiding arms in cargo containers through airports and seaports. Privately made firearms (or ghost guns) are also increasingly used by criminals. These are firearms built using partially finished factory parts that often come in kits.

Violent deaths three times above global average

The key findings the report identified were: The rate of violent deaths in Caricom member states is almost three times the global average. Firearms are used in more than half of all homicides in the whole Caribbean region, and in some countries, this proportion reaches 90 per cent.

“Legal civilian firearm ownership is tightly regulated in the region. As a result, firearms licensing and registration data is relatively available and suggests a low rate of legal civilian firearm ownership in the region compared with the global average.

“Based on seizure and trace data, the vast majority of illicit firearms circulating in the Caribbean are handguns. While illicit rifles and rifle ammunition are emerging concerns for law enforcement officials, their use by criminals in the Caribbean remains limited.

“The US domestic market is a major source of illicit firearms and ammunition in the Caribbean and is likely the largest source in some states and territories.

“Data gaps and ambiguities preclude a definitive assessment, and available evidence indicates that firearms are also sourced from other countries.

“Firearms and ammunition are trafficked from the United States to the Caribbean via commercial airliners, postal and fast parcel services, and maritime shipping companies.”