In the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting that killed 58 people and wounded 489 more, pressure developed quickly inside Washington to ban “bump stocks,” the devices that Stephen Paddock used to increase the firing rate on his semi-automatic assault rifles. Legislators in the House and Senate introduced bills to ban the accessory, and even some top Republicans said they were willing to consider such measures.
The big question was how the ultra-powerful National Rifle Association would respond. It had remained silent for four days, which is the typical operating procedure for the group after a mass shooting. But Thursday afternoon the NRA finally released a statement from Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox, the NRA’s top lobbyist. “The National Rifle Association is calling on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to immediately review whether these [bump stock] devices comply with federal law. The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”
This led to a spate of headlines noting the NRA made a “rare move” to endorse new regulations on guns. On its face, that seems to be what happened—and indeed, in the past, the NRA has dug in against any new restrictions.
But, in context, the NRA might be actually be trying to head off the regulation of bump stocks by kicking the decision to the ATF instead of Congress. The ATF is far less likely to ban them, and the NRA surely knows that.
Under Obama, the agency sanctioned the sale of bump stocks when they came on the market in 2010 because it determined the devices did not violate any laws—and technically, they may not. Banned machine guns are defined in the National Firearms Act as “any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.”
Bump stocks do not alter a gun’s trigger, but rather are attached to the back of a rifle and use the force of recoil to bump the rifle off the shooter’s shoulder and back onto his or her trigger finger. It mimics a fully automatic trigger, but does not create one, and the trigger does not complete a “single function” to shoot continuous shots with a bump stock attached.
The former ATF official who originally signed off on the decision to allow bump-stocks told The Washington Post this week he considers them to be “goofy little doodads” that don’t violate the letter of federal law. It’s certainly possible the ATF might take another look this year and reconsider that determination, but all it has to work with is the letter of the law. It won’t consider public safety, constituent pressure, or common sense—only whether the devices are in violation of what’s described in the United States Code.
The NRA’s maneuver also provides political relief to any Republicans who don’t want to vote on a ban on bump stocks for fear of angering conservative media or the hyper-rigid Gun Owners of America, a smaller but more radical version of the NRA that has come straight out against bump-stock regulations. “I don’t think these should be banned” is a tough sell when a Vegas concert venue was turned into a killing field with war-level casualties, but “I think it’s best to let the ATF handle this with existing law” is a much smoother line.
Even if the ATF ultimately bans bump stocks, it’s still a win from the NRA in the sense that it protected members from having to take a vote on gun-restricting legislation. There would be no highly public Senate and House drama, which bring a lot more public attention to the issue of gun regulation and stuff the coffers of gun control groups with donations in the process as people mobilized around the vote. Instead, the whole debate can be shunted to a bureaucrat’s quiet desk at the ATF.
The NRA notably did not say in its statement if it supports the House and Senate legislation, and did not respond to a request for comment from The Nation. None of the bill’s sponsors will withdraw it, obviously, but the NRA may have just plunged a knife into the efforts, while pretending to be sensible.