I have a sneaking suspicion I’m about to hear a lot of unproductive, partisan opinions about bump stocks. The gun folks are going to cry second amendment and paint a picture of an overreaching federal government. The anti-gun folks are going to decry the move by the President to criminalize bump stocks as pandering which does not address the larger issue of gun violence.
Both sides will be right, to some extent, and wrong to a much larger one.
I cannot believe that I am defending the White House, the DOJ, or Donald Trump – but this move is a step in the right direction.
For those unfamiliar, a bump stock is a completely legal modification which can dramatically increase the rate of fire of a semi-automatic rifle. It uses the recoil of the gun to pump the rifle back towards the trigger finger which makes the gun fire significantly faster than any person could pull the trigger.
The bump-stock rose to notoriety when Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas gunman, affixed them to twelve firearms and used them to kill 58 people and injure more than 800 others.
While horrifying, the bump stock is hardly alone amongst legal gun modifications which create functionally automatic weapons out of semi-automatic ones. Among them are trigger cranks and hellfire triggers, both of which can be placed on the trigger mechanism of a rifle to similarly increase rate of fire.
The ban the administration is proposing would necessitate the classification of the modifications as automatic weapons by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives; which is where the wicket gets a little sticky. In a 2010 decision, the ATF ruled that the aforementioned modifications – bump stocks included – did not constitute automatic weaponry under the current firearms legislation.
The White House is proposing a review of that decision, which if passed would mean that the ATF could move to reclassify bump stocks et al. as automatic weaponry.
Which is where the criticism of the approach the White House and DOJ are taking is legitimate. An ATF decision to change their mind could be tied up in court for ages, and even if it did pass would be slow to be implemented. Legislation passed by Congress would be much more solid than some legal finagling by the Executive branch. However, last year’s attempt to pass a law banning bump stocks was dead on arrival.
So, I have to take this rare moment to laud the Trump administration for trying to take real action on something that has been continually scuppered in Congress. Whether they succeed or not, the spotlight on this issue is the beginning of a valuable conversation which must take place on guns in America.
Because there is a lot that has to change, modifications are only the beginning.
The system of background checks is clearly broken – with states not required to meet any set benchmark of reporting checks and the FBI’s database that gun retailers are supposed to be accessing leaving a lot to be desired. The database is not up to date, and the responsibility for reporting information is distributed across law enforcement, healthcare professionals, courts and the military. The system if full of opportunity for human error, which is how people like Nikolas Cruz get their hands on guns.
The current system provides grants to states and tribes which participate in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. However last year those grants totaled a $15 million payout, which is a meager incentive for states to get on board.
There is also the question of classification – the current legislation on guns in the US does not distinguish between automatic and semi-automatic based on the rate of fire, but by the mechanisms by which the gun is operated. This definition is clearly outmoded and allows the enhancement of semi-automatic weapons with impunity.
Even if bump stocks are criminalized, it is a safe bet that gun enthusiasts will be able to come up with a legal replacement in no time. Legislation will always fall behind the rate of technological innovation unless we change the way we think about gun control.
Which is why this move by the White House is more useful than not. They are clearly joining the roiling national conversation on gun reform, and we have to take these wins where we can get them. God knows that Trump’s base is not going to be a fan of increased government involvement, or of gun control more broadly, so this move by the White House can be seen to demonstrate…moral fiber?
I can’t believe I just wrote that. But this is the beginning of the right thing to do, a move which could ultimately change laws and save lives.
Now it’s up to Republicans to get on board and make the change; their leader has given them the green light.