The Right Way to Regulate Bump Stocks

by Robert VerBruggen

Over on the homepage, I have a piece arguing that we should treat “bump stocks,” which enable a common semiautomatic rifle to fire almost as quickly as a fully automatic weapon, the same way we treat full autos under federal law. This means grandfathering the devices that are already legally owned but stopping more from entering the market.

I believe Congress should make this change. The National Rifle Association, in an admirable statement that must have been difficult for the organization to make, proposes achieving a similar end through different means: 

Despite the fact that the Obama administration approved the sale of bump fire stocks on at least two occasions, the National Rifle Association is calling on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) to immediately review whether these 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.

The ATF is part of the executive branch and is thus limited to enforcing the laws that Congress has passed. I don’t believe current law gives the bureau the authority to restrict these devices.

As I note in my piece, federal law defines “machinegun” as a “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 allow the weapon to fire multiple times for each function of the trigger; they just help the user pull the trigger incredibly rapidly.

Indeed, it’s arguable that the ATF has already exceeded its statutory authority in the limits it has placed on bump stocks. Under the Bush administration the agency briefly approved a device called the Akins Accelerator. This device involved a spring — basically, the recoil of the gun would compress the spring, and then the spring would push the gun back forward into the user’s trigger finger. The ATF rescinded this approval in 2006 soon after the gun went on sale, though, arguing that the spring made the device automatic. Courts upheld this decision even though, as with the bump stocks currently on the market (including a new, springless Akins), the device made triggers function more rapidly rather than allowing guns to fire multiple times for each function of the trigger.

Could the ATF get away with a loose interpretation of the law, given that courts tend to defer to the executive branch and there is public pressure to regulate bump stocks? Perhaps. And I will say bump stocks would have made a better project for the Obama ATF than did its legal but pointless attack on “green tip” ammunition. But the right way to do this is for Congress to pass a law.

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