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Republicans Reluctant To Act On ‘Bump Stocks,’ Hoping The ATF Will Act For Them

After some initial signs that we’d see quick Congressional action on so-called ‘bump stocks,’ devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to function as if they were fully automatic, Republicans on Capitol Hill are backing away from acting and hoping that the ATF acts in their place:

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan backed away Wednesday from legislative action to ban “bump stocks,” the device a mass shooter used in Las Vegas earlier this month to create machine-gun-like rapid fire from his legal semiautomatic rifle, killing 58.

Instead, Ryan and many of his fellow House Republicans hope the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) will act administratively to outlaw the devices, which the agency ruled legal in 2010.

“We think the regulatory fix is the smartest, quickest fix, and then, frankly, we’d like to know how it happened in the first place,” Ryan (Wis.) told reporters Wednesday. He did not discuss pursuing legislation to address the issue.

Ryan made his remarks a day after 20 bipartisan House members backed a bill to ban bump stocksand similar devices meant to accelerate the firing rate of semiautomatic rifles.

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), would make it illegal to manufacture, own or transfer any device that “is designed and functions to increase the rate of fire of a semiautomatic rifle but does not convert the semiautomatic rifle into a machinegun.”

Fully automatic machine guns, which fire off multiple rounds with a single pull of the trigger, are much more tightly regulated than semiautomatic weapons under federal law, and it generally is illegal to own guns of that type manufactured after 1986. Bump stocks avoid those restrictions by utilizing a semiautomatic weapon’s recoil to repeatedly engage the trigger.

Curbelo said Tuesday that administrative action alone would not solve the issue, noting that ATF has previously ruled that the devices should not be regulated like machine guns.

“If they were to get sued after changing that interpretation, the plaintiffs would have a very strong case, given the agency’s previous determinations,” he said. “So if people agree with banning these devices, let’s pass a law. It’s the best way to make sure it gets done.”

Ryan’s comments Wednesday went somewhat further than his comments last Thursday, shortly after the National Rifle Association issued a statement saying that bump stocks ought to be more tightly restricted and that ATF ought to revisit its prior rulings.

“Fully automatic weapons have been outlawed for many, many years,” Ryan said last Thursday. “This seems to be a way of going around that, so obviously we need to look how we can tighten up the compliance with this law so that fully automatic weapons are banned.”

Mary Markos, an ATF spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the agency is “not releasing anything at this time” regarding its regulation of bump stocks.

Although many gun-rights advocates in Congress have expressed a willingness to restrict bump stocks and similar devices, they are wary of taking action through legislation. With the presidency and both chambers of Congress under GOP control, and yet few pieces of major legislation signed into law, multiple House Republicans said privately this week that it would be politically untenable to put a gun-control bill on President Trump’s desk.

“It’s the height of irony if we don’t repeal Obamacare, we don’t cut taxes, but we do implement more gun control,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Second Amendment Caucus. “That’s a perversion of the GOP agenda, and I think my colleagues recognize that, which is why they’re hoping the ATF will do it.”

But there may be a critical mass of moderate Republicans that could help push a bump-stock bill to the fore. Curbelo said Tuesday that he expected to add “many more” Republican co-sponsors to his measure in the coming days.

Washington Post count of GOP lawmakers suggests that enough Republicans are willing to join with Democrats in the House to pass a ban.

As I noted in my initial post on this topic, there’s little reason not to act on these banning these devices given the fact that they clearly serve no legitimate purpose other than to allow people to get around laws that have been in place since at least 1986, and in some cases as long ago as the 1930s, that banned the sale and ownership of fully automatic weapons by civilians. While it remains unclear at this time whether the weapons that were used by the shooter in the Vegas shooting were actually equipped with these devices, it has been reported that police recovered at least a dozen of them both from his hotel room and from his home, and the audio recordings of the shooting clearly indicate that he was using a weapon that had been modified in some way to act like an automatic weapon to complete his carnage. Because of this, banning the devices seem like an easy call that Congress should be able to act on quickly.

Of course, this is Washington we’re talking about so such things are easier said than done.

In this case, it seems apparent that at least some Republicans on Capitol Hill would prefer to not have to go on the record as having voted even for what is clearly a reasonable gun control law that practically everyone can agree on. This appears to be why they are hoping that the BATF will act on their behalf and rescind its previous regulatory ruling that found that the bump stocks were not banned under existing law and that only Congress had the authority to expand that law. Despite this, and despite the fact that Republicans spent eight years criticizing President Obama for allegedly using Executive and regulatory authority to go around Congress in ways not authorized by law. Now, they are clearly hoping that the BATF acts so that they don’t have to and so that they won’t have to go on the record with a vote that gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America, as well as individual advocates of gun rights, don’t approve of even if its the right thing to do. It isn’t an exaggeration to call this cowardly, and it will be interesting to see if hardline Republicans get away with it.

It’s possible that the House of Representatives could still act on this, of course, since it appears from the head counts that have been done that there is enough support for a bump stock ban among moderate Republicans and Democrats for the measure to pass easily. The question is whether such a measure can or will get to the House floor. While there are some procedures that a vocal minority can use to force a vote on a bill in the House, it’s not easy and far more difficult than if the House leadership green lights the measure and allows it to go through the regular process. Instead of doing that, though, these latest remarks seem to indicate that the leadership is dragging its feet and hoping someone else will act so they don’t have to. Not exactly a profile in courage, is it?

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. SKI says:

    My understanding is that BAFT under Obama declined to ban *some* bump stocks because of the way the legislation that Congress did pass was written made it, in the eyes of their lawyers, impossible to ban. Others they did ban because they could under the law.

    See here:

    But did Obama approve their legality? Sort of, but approved is probably the wrong word.

    NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter pointed us to a June 2010 approval letter from ATF, an agency under executive purview, sent to Slide Fire, a bump stock manufacturer. Spelling out the legal definition of a firearm, ATF’s technology chief John Spencer determined it was not regulated by law.

    “The stock has no automatically functioning mechanical parts or springs and performs no automatic mechanical function when installed,” Spencer wrote. “Accordingly, we find that the ‘bump-stock’ is a firearm part and is not regulated as a firearm under Gun Control Act or the National Firearms Act.”

    Bump stocks harness a weapon’s recoil to cause the user’s finger to squeeze the trigger repeatedly, but because they don’t alter the gun’s internal mechanisms, they were considered lawful.

    We found a similar 2012 letter addressed to Bump Fire, a competing manufacturer.

    But just as these bump stocks didn’t qualify for regulation, two similar devices did.

    The difference? The Akins Accelerator and the Autoglove were determined in 2007 and 2017, respectively, to have mechanical parts that enhanced the trigger mechanism, making them by definition machineguns.

    “Electrically-driven trigger devices are considered ‘machineguns’ because they are a ‘combination of parts designed and intended, for use in converting a weapon into a machinegun,’ ” ATF’s letter to AutoGlove read.

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  2. Paul L. says:

    @SKI:

    they couldn’t find any way to classify it as a machine gun.

    The current bills go beyond Bump Stocks.

    Of course I would rather they just repeal the NFA instead.

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  3. gVOR08 says:

    Not exactly a profile in courage, is it?

    Doug Mataconis, master of understatement, strikes again.

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  4. Jack says:

    Maybe the ATFE or congress should simply ban fingers. That would solve the problem. Can’t have someone twitching their finger too fast for liberals you know.

    Stupid Liberals.

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  5. al-Ameda says:

    @Jack:

    Maybe the ATFE or congress should simply ban fingers. That would solve the problem. Can’t have someone twitching their finger too fast for liberals you know.
    Stupid Liberals.

    Alright, now I truly understand your obsession and fetish for guns.
    Thanks for all clarification.

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  6. Franklin says:

    @Jack: Derp derp. You do know that automatic weapons are already illegal. Do you have a problem with that, yes or no?

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  7. Franklin says:

    We are witnessing, in the modern Congress, a Guinness Book of World Records attempt at having the biggest number of yellow-bellied fucktards assembled in the same location at the same time.

    Seriously, is there anybody more scared of anything, than a Republican is scared of the gun lobby? Bawk, bawk, bawk, BAAAAWWWK.

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  8. Franklin says:

    Asking for a friend here … my friend needs a comment released from moderation because he described the legislative branch of the federal government just a bit too succinctly.

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  9. Sleeping Dog says:

    Regarding guns and the NRA, Rethugs could benefit from a Sister Souljah moment and at least pretend that they are not the b@%*h of the gun lobby. It seems that bump stocks provides that opportunity.

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  10. Christopher Todd says:

    “Quick action” by Congress is never a good idea, especially during times of tragedy, that’s how we got the PATRIOT Act.

    There is nothing “common sense” about gun control, it has failed everywhere it has been implemented, and people were bump firing their semi-auto rifles LONG before bump stocks came on the market. Also, 3D printers make any bans of accessories hollow anyway.

    The bills in question go FAR beyond banning just Bump stocks, the language is so vague that it could ban all aftermarket triggers made by Timney, Geissele and others. The antis are trying to take a mile again, like they always do.

    These bills will be fought tooth and nail at every step, get ready to see people dropping their support for them.

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  11. Gustopher says:

    @Christopher Todd:

    Also, 3D printers make any bans of accessories hollow anyway.

    Ban ownership, and if someone is found to possess one, send them to jail for 20 years.

    How hard is that?

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  12. Franklin says:

    @Christopher Todd: Aww, the little pussy can’t sleep without his big manly gun next to him.

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  13. KM says:

    @Christopher Todd

    The bills in question go FAR beyond banning just Bump stocks, the language is so vague that it could ban all aftermarket triggers made by Timney, Geissele and others. The antis are trying to take a mile again, like they always do.

    Question then: what you are arguing is it’s not right to ban accessories to the arms, instead of the arms themselves. Where in the 2nd is your right to amend, add on or adjust your arms with aftermarket accessories, especially those designed to circumvent existing laws? You have the right to own a gun, not necessarily pimp it out. One would argue these items should be included into the weapon design if they were necessary and are not needed for defense, hunting or the usual arguments.

    Bump stocks exist so you can fire faster and have a ball doing it. Should the SC get involved, you’re going to be highly disappointed in how they rule based on their previous decision logic. Let this one go – the more the NRA fights for something that’s essentially an expensive shooting toy that was obscure a month ago, the more it becomes clear it’s less about the 2nd and more about an FU to liberals.

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  14. Mikey says:

    @Christopher Todd:

    There is nothing “common sense” about gun control, it has failed everywhere it has been implemented

    Yeah, that’s why America’s firearms death rate is about 10 per 100,000 while the countries that have implemented gun control average about 1.5 per 100,000.

    I wish we could “fail” that way.

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  15. An Interested Party says:

    Ahh, there’s nothing like the fear of losing one’s perk-filled, cozy job to be so motivated to work on behalf of such a vile industry…I mean, who cares how many innocents get slaughtered…thank God there aren’t term limits for these “patriots”, otherwise, what would they do…

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  16. Teve tory says:

    I’d like to see an originalist reading of the 2nd which says the guns you’re allowed to own can hold one bullet max.

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  17. gVOR08 says:

    @Christopher Todd:

    The bills in question go FAR beyond banning just Bump stocks, the language is so vague that it could ban all aftermarket triggers made by Timney, Geissele and others.

    You say that as though it were a bad thing.

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  18. Jen says:

    Majorities of voters in both parties want to see sensible gun control. The NRA, if it were thinking AT ALL, would be pushing for this. It would be a near-perfect PR move for them. They could keep the legislation tightly written because Republicans currently are a majority in Congress. They’d come across as less insane to the broader public, and, there is no real reason to protect the companies that make these parts–they aren’t the big manufacturers who currently own the NRA.

    The cowardice in not addressing this is astonishing. This congress has spines of wet toilet paper.

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