Politics & Policy

Treat ‘Bump Stocks’ Like Machine Guns

Rifle equipped with a bump stock (image via YouTube)
Fully automatic weapons are heavily regulated. This product exploits a loophole in the law.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has confirmed that the Las Vegas shooter possessed twelve “bump stocks.” This is a piece of technology that makes an easily available semiautomatic rifle fire almost as quickly as a fully automatic weapon.

True full-auto weapons spray bullets continuously when the trigger is held down, and they are hard to get. It’s been illegal to sell new fully automatic guns to civilians since 1986, which has limited the supply and driven the price into the five figures. Further, anyone purchasing a fully automatic weapon needs the approval of the federal government and is entered into a registry. The ATF has not yet explicitly ruled out the possibility that some of the shooter’s guns were capable of this kind of fire — he was a wealthy man with no criminal record, so in theory he might have been able to acquire a pre-1986 gun — but it is looking increasingly unlikely.

Bump stocks, by contrast, do not contain any springs or other automatically functioning parts. Instead, to use a bump stock — as the ATF put it in a letter verifying the legality of one such product — “the shooter must apply constant forward pressure with the non-shooting hand and constant rearward pressure with the shooting hand.” The stock channels this pressure and the gun’s recoil into repeated pulls of the trigger, thus letting off a constant stream of bullets. While it’s possible to “bump fire” without a special accessory, stocks designed for the purpose allow the user, with practice, to hold and control the gun properly while shooting.

In this video you can see a real fully automatic weapon compared with a semiautomatic equipped with a bump stock.

The ATF has concluded that bump stocks do not fall into the legal category of “machinegun,” defined in federal statute 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.” (What’s really defined here is “automatic weapon,” of which machine guns are just one type.) The agency has also greenlighted other hacks that achieve the same effect, such as Gatling gun–style cranks.

That’s a solid interpretation of the law as written, because bump stocks do not allow the user to fire multiple times “by a single function of the trigger” — they just make the trigger function a whole lot faster. And of course it is not the ATF’s job to rewrite laws when loopholes become apparent. So Congress must do so.

There is no good reason to make fully automatic weapons or their equivalents generally available to the public. The Second Amendment doesn’t require it: The Supreme Court’s Heller ruling took care to explain why it didn’t apply to weapons that are “dangerous or unusual” or not in “common use,” including “M-16 rifles and the like.” This is strongly supported by previous Supreme Court precedent (the “common use” standard comes from 1939’s U.S. v. Miller). It is also consistent with history: The Heller Court explained that there is a strong tradition of prohibiting the carrying of especially dangerous weapons, and that “the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment’s ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home to militia duty.” There may be an argument that the Court got it wrong — that the people are to be allowed any kind of firearm that exists, all the better for resisting tyranny — but few constitutional rights are so broad in scope as to completely override any threat to public safety they pose. And, if nothing else, imposing such a broad interpretation is a good way to get the Second Amendment repealed.

Self-defense is not a compelling reason for bump stocks to be easily available, either. Outside of a war zone, one would not fire a fully automatic weapon at an intruder indoors or carry one in the streets late at night. Full autos are also not hunting weapons, or tools suited to pinpoint-accurate target shooting.

About all that can be said for them is that they’re fun to shoot, at least for those who can afford the copious amounts of ammunition they burn at dramatically reduced accuracy. That would be enough if the case against them were weak, but it’s not. Weapons equipped with these devices let off far more rounds, far more quickly, than do the semiautomatic weapons commonly used for hunting and self-defense. Unleashed on a crowd, even from hundreds of yards away, they can produce unprecedented casualties.

Weapons with bump stocks are not the “assault weapon” bogeyman liberals have been hyping for decades. They provide the actual military functionality that liberals hoped you’d confuse with the normal civilian firearms they were trying to ban.

This isn’t a bold new frontier in gun control, either. We’ve already decided how to regulate automatic weapons. We placed tight restrictions on them in 1934, then banned new guns from entering the market in 1986. This has been one of the few gun-control policies that unambiguously worked; fully automatic weapons have been used in just a handful of crimes since 1934. Bump stocks are a brazen way of working around the text of the law, and they should never have been sold legally. It was almost assured this would happen eventually.

In other words, restricting bump stocks would not put us on a slippery slope. It would merely harmonize the law’s treatment of bump stocks with its treatment of other means of firing hundreds upon hundreds of rounds per minute. And it is easy to differentiate between fully automatic and semiautomatic guns, as the latter are in common use for legitimate everyday purposes ranging from self-defense to hunting to target shooting.

How did we end up here? It’s not that no one noticed this product was on the market. Liberal sites such as Slate and The Trace wrote articles about it. Gun-enthusiast and Second Amendment sites covered bump stocks, too. The ATF advised manufacturers as to which designs were legal and which were not. But the closest anyone came to changing the law was a 2013 bill from Senator Dianne Feinstein, which folded the provision into a far broader “assault weapons” ban that had no prayer of passing. I’m ashamed to say I knew about the phenomenon but did nothing to spread the word about the obvious dangers it posed or the need to address it in targeted, bipartisan legislation, as opposed to a pie-in-the-sky wish list from a notorious gun grabber.

Congress should give this product the same treatment it gave to true full autos three decades ago.

To be sure, regulating this technology will be less than 100 percent effective; a small accessory is simply harder to contain than are the true fully automatic weapons addressed in the 1934 and 1986 laws. There are plenty of the things already in circulation legally, which cannot and should not be confiscated. And a bump stock is a simple enough contraption that some people can make their own. But this is a device that serves no compelling civilian purpose and yet can drastically increase the body count of a mass shooting. We should not allow companies to perfect its design and sell it openly.

Congress should give this product the same treatment it gave to true full autos three decades ago: Grandfather what already exists, but stop new ones from entering the market. If a compromise is in order, attaching this policy to the Hearing Protection Act, which would make it easier to buy sound suppressors, would be an ideal solution.


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