Gee, what a shock: Long live the bump stock

A device called a

In this Oct. 4, 2017, photo, a device called a "bump stock" is attached to a semi-automatic rifle at the Gun Vault store and shooting range in South Jordan, Utah. (Rick Bowmer/AP Photo)

Hey, remember 28 days ago, when 58 innocents were gunned down and 546 were injured by one guy in 10 minutes? Ever wonder what happened to the tiny glimmer of gun reform that briefly competed with Thoughts ‘n’ Prayers?

Well, it has basically been snuffed. Just thought you’d want to know. To paraphrase the poet T. S. Eliot, it died not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The Las Vegas massacre was met with the usual congressional inertia — no surprise there; the NRA has bought itself a slew of Second Amendment stooges — but it did appear, for a wee moment, that there might be bipartisan support for a ban on bump stocks, the gizmo that magically turns semiautomatic weapons into fully automatic machine guns. That was the least that Congress could do, right?

A House ban was introduced. A Senate ban was introduced; as sponsor Dianne Feinstein assured the hunters of America, she intended “to target only those accessories that increase a semi-automatic rifle’s rate of fire.” Some Republicans even seemed to get it. House member Bill Flores of Texas (Texas!) said, “I think they should be banned. There’s no reason for a typical gun owner to own anything that converts a semiautomatic to something that behave like an automatic.” And the number two guy in the Senate, John Cornyn of Texas (Texas!) said, “I don’t understand the use of this bump stock. It seems like it’s an obvious area we ought to explore and see if it’s something Congress needs to act on.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Well, four weeks have passed since the Vegas mow down, and, all too predictably Congress has moved on. So has virtually everyone else, which is why you’ve barely hear a word about the quiet death of a bump stock ban. But I guess I’m not ready to move on yet — at least not without first sharing what happened. Or, more accurately, what didn’t happen.

Basically, the House’s proposed ban garnered only 20 co-sponsors (10 of them Republican) and has never been slated for a Judiciary Committee hearing. The Senate’s proposed ban has garnered zero Republican co-sponsors and has never been slated for a Judiciary Committee hearing. Why the inaction? Because the NRA has decreed that it be so.

There was a flurry of news stories, right after the massacre, that the NRA was willing to consider a bump stock ban. An amazing development, or so it seemed. It turned out (surprise, surprise) that the gun manufacturers’ lobby was merely engaging in some savvy misdirection. Joseph Heller, who coined the term “Catch-22,” would have recognized this strategy as a classic example.

Within days of its initial welcoming of a bump stock ban, the NRA clarified its position. It didn’t want Congress to pass any legislation; instead, it said that any bump stock ban should be handled by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, better known as the ATF. But here comes the hitch: The ATF can’t ban any gun “accessory” (like the bump stock) unless Congress acts first. And since the NRA doesn’t want Congress to act at all, there cannot be a ban.

Paul Ryan danced to the NRA’s tune, insisting that “the regulatory fix is the smartest, quickest fix,” but, naturally, he didn’t know (or chose not to know) what he was talking about. A group called the ATF Association — its members are current and former ATF employees — soon released a statement: “ATF makes rulings based on the statutory authority contained in law, and cannot change the law to add new accessories that do not fall within the scope of existing law.” Existing law basically covers firearms, not firearm parts. And as the ATF ruled in 2010, “the bump stock is a firearm part and is not regulated as a firearm” under existing law.

This is the kind of fine print that may well get a lot more innocent people killed, but this is the kind of nation we’re stuck living in. And it’s not just progressives who are alarmed. Marc Thiessen, a conservative think-tanker and former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush, is incensed that Republican lawmakers are indulging the the NRA’s bump-stock con. He calls it “an insult to the American people” in a Washington Post op-ed. “They should show more respect for the voters … and the victims who died in Las Vegas. This is a chance for bipartisan action. Republicans should take it.”

As if.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal