Four Months After Las Vegas Mass Shooting, Feds Still Deciding Whether Bump Stocks Are Legal

How a bump stock works
How a bump stock works Phoenix7777 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Nearly four months have passed since the Las Vegas mass shooting spurred outrage over bump-fire stocks, which gunman Stephen Paddock attached to 12 of his semiautomatic rifles before he killed 58 people and injured hundreds more.

A bump-fire stock replaces a rifle's butt stock, or “shoulder stock,” and lets the gun move back and forth rapidly. It allows a shooter to hold his trigger finger stationary as the rifle recoils, converting a semiautomatic rifle into something capable of firing 100 rounds in seven seconds and 400 to 800 rounds per minute.

Not all avid hunters like using bump stocks, and not all gun dealers like stocking them. They require a little bit of skill to use: knowing how to press the trigger and how much forward pressure to apply to cause the bump-fire action. Bump firing is known to be inaccurate, like trying to aim with an unleashed jackhammer. That didn't seem to matter in Las Vegas — Paddock's victims were crowded together 32 stories below him at an outdoor country music festival when he opened fire from a hotel room window Oct. 1.

Shortly after the Las Vegas shooting, lawmakers were quick to call on the federal government to ban bump-fire stocks, and there seemed to be bipartisan support. Then Republican lawmakers decided that instead of Congress handling the issue, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives should figure it out. The agency had already claimed the accessory was “not regulated as a firearm under Gun Control Act or the National Firearms Act,” according to a June 2010 letter to Slide Fire, one of the leading manufacturers of bump-fire stocks.

The ATF announced online in December that it was opening up a public comment period about the Department of Justice's proposed rule-making that “would interpret the statutory definition of machine gun in the National Firearms Act of 1934 and Gun Control Act of 1968 to determine if bump-fire stocks falls within that definition.”

The comment period ended Jan. 25. The ATF received more than 35,000 comments, including dozens from Texans, according to a report in The Dallas Morning News earlier this week. The large number of comments doesn't mean people want to ban the bump-fire stock. The ATF is trying to determine how consumers use them by asking questions about where they're purchased, how much they cost and what purposes they serve users.

"The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semiautomatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.” – National Rifle Association

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“If ATF classified bump stock devices as 'machineguns' under the Gun Control Act of 1968, as amended, and the National Firearms Act of 1934, as amended, what would you expect to be the impact on your gross receipts for calendar year 2018?” is one of several questions for gun dealers that focus on economic impact.

Although the National Rifle Association claimed politicians' first responses after mass shootings always seem to be for more gun control, it also noted in a statement released on its website, “Despite the fact that the Obama administration approved the sale of bump-fire stocks on at least two occasions, the [NRA] is calling on the [ATF] to immediately review whether these devices comply with federal law. The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semiautomatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”

About 150 miles west of Dallas, where Slide Fire manufactures its bump-fire stock, a ban would devastate the small town of Moran. Shackleford County Commissioner Lanham Martin told The New York Times in October that any move to ban them would be an unconstitutional regulation and wipe out local jobs, including those of the town mayor and his wife. He reiterated what's often left unspoken at gun shops: “It's not the gun that kills people. It's the person who's willing to pull the trigger.”

Martin said blaming bump-fire stocks for the killings is like blaming a pencil for misspelled words.

Nevertheless, several states have taken up legislation to ban the bump-fire stock. California already bans the device (and has been doing so since the '90s). So does New Jersey. Massachusetts' bump-fire stock and trigger crank ban took effect Thursday, prohibiting their sale or transfer and private possession. Massachusetts police encouraged people to turn in the devices before the Feb. 1 deadline to avoid facing charges.

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a gun control group, told the Dallas Observer on Tuesday that 15 states have introduced some type of legislation to restrict bump-fire stocks. Texas isn't one of them.

Cities are also following suit. Columbia, South Carolina, was the first city to ban bump-fire stocks in late December, making it a misdemeanor to use them within city limits. Denver soon followed, enacting a ban Jan. 22, a move that The Denver Post calls largely symbolic because the city already prohibits the rifles that use them.

Las Vegas can't ban them because state law prevents it.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said in a Dec. 28 City Lab article that his city's ban was “born out of Vegas.” “Before Vegas we didn't even know what a bump stock was,” he said. Las Vegas state Sen. Patricia Farley made the same point when she told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Jan. 30 that she didn't think “bump stocks were on anyone's radar.”

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An informal memorial was set up in Las Vegas after the Oct. 1 mass shooting that killed 58 people.
They weren't on my radar before the Las Vegas shooting. I'd never heard a customer asking for one or my father discussing them at my family's gun shop outside of Granbury. My dad didn't stock them because no one seemed to want one — until the calls for bump-fire stock regulation.

There are several bump-stock manufacturers around the country. FosTech churns them out in Indiana but calls the device a “tactical brace.” The West Texas company Slide Fire manufacturers various types of bump-fire stocks and says on its website that its bump stock “makes it easier to safely and accurately bump for your rifle. [It] is fun, exciting and entertaining.”

Slide Fire quit offering the bump-fire stock shortly after the shooting because it sold out of its stock. Cabela's and Walmart pulled the product from their shelves and online stores, and a gun control group filed a class-action lawsuit against Slide Fire and other bump-fire stock manufacturers and retailers on behalf of Route 91 Harvest festival attendees who suffered emotional distress from the Las Vegas shooting.

“This horrific assault did not occur, could not occur, and would not have occurred with a conventional handgun, rifle or shotgun, of the sort used by law-abiding responsible gun owners for hunting or self defense,” the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence stated in the Oct. 10 lawsuit filed in the Clark County District Court Nevada.

The gun control group seeks to recover costs associated with counseling and other treatment for emotional distress, as well as punitive damages, which it says is appropriate because the defendants provided a product that allowed customers to avoid longstanding federal laws banning automatic weapons. That will be a hard battle to win; a 2005 federal law protects firearms manufacturers like Slide Fire from liability if their products are used in a crime.

Banning the bump-fire stock won't necessarily keep rapid-firing rifles out of would-be mass shooter's hands, either. It's still possible to buy an automatic rifle in Texas, although most people think they're banned. Under the National Firearms Act, the ATF requires would-be owners to fill out an Application for Tax Paid Transfer and Registration of Firearm to purchase an automatic weapon. Purchasers also must submit fingerprints. The ATF sends an agent to see where the machine gun will be kept. The problem arises when a gun owner tries to get a county's chief law enforcement official to certify the owner is a law-abiding citizen by signing the form. Although many officials refuse to do so, all a law-abiding Texas gun owner needs to do is hire an attorney to set up an NFA gun trust. It costs about $300 and still requires notifying the sheriff's office, but you don't need the sheriff's approval.

But for a couple hundred bucks, the bump-fire stock offers gun owners that fully automatic capability without the government hassle. My father's shop now sells them for less than $200 online. Immediately after the Las Vegas shooting, finding them anywhere was difficult. It will be even more so if the ATF decides the bump-fire stock falls under the definition of a machine gun as controlled by the Gun Control Act and NFA.

When Jeremiah Cottle, the owner of Slide Fire, sent his letter to the ATF seeking an evaluation of a replacement shoulder stock for an AR-15 type rifle, he said the bump-fire stock was “intended to assist persons whose hands have limited mobility to 'bump-fire' an AR-15 type rifle,” according to a June 7, 2010, letter from the ATF.

Cottle said in an Aug. 10, 2016, interview with Ammoland that he invented his slide-fire stock after he became frustrated with other bump-firing techniques that he claimed weren't reliable or consistent. “One afternoon it dawned on me that you needed a stable platform to hold on to the firearm but that the firearm still had to be able to move in order to bump fire,” he told the gun website. “I wondered if this could be done by replacing the pistol grip and the stock. So I went out in my woodworking shop and got a 2x10 and PVC pipe and duct tape.”

He sent a prototype of the accessory to the ATF, and the federal agency approved it.

"We find that the 'bump stock' is a firearm part and is not regulated as a firearm under Gun Control Act of the National Firearms Act.” – John Spencer, chief of the ATF's firearms technology branch

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“In order to use the installed device, the shooter must apply constant forward pressure with the non-shooting hand and constant rearward pressure with the shooting hand,” John Spencer, chief of the ATF's firearms technology branch, wrote in his June 2010 letter. “Accordingly, we find that the 'bump stock' is a firearm part and is not regulated as a firearm under Gun Control Act of the National Firearms Act.”

As far as I know, we've never had anyone with limited mobility trying to buy a bump-fire stock from the gun shop. Mostly the purchasers are gun owners who want a full-auto experience. “Some people like drag racing, some people like skiing and some people, like me, love full auto,” Cottle told Ammoland.

A few days after the Las Vegas mass shooting, I returned to my father's gun shop on the outskirts of Granbury to help him restock the inventory. The ATF spent two days auditing the shop. It took us about the same amount of time to separate the inventory according to the books. You're not required to do so, but my father wants to make the process as smooth as possible for the federal agents.

It had been a couple of years since ATF last audited the gun shop. It's always a stressful time. My father spends the little bit of free time he has triple-checking the paperwork and cursing my brother under his breath when he notices a mistake. I prefer to hang out with him after the audit. He's more agreeable.

When calls to ban bump-fire stocks erupted, my father received quite a few phone calls from people looking to purchase them. They couldn't find them on our online gun store. My father regretted not stocking a few at the shop. He said a couple of his customers were selling theirs used online for triple the original price.

At that time, Slide Fire had quit production. It released a statement on its website in October: “We have decided to temporarily suspend taking new orders in order to provide the best service with those already placed.”

In a rare move by a Republican lawmaker, Texas Sen. John Cornyn joined eight of his congressional colleagues and called on the Department of Justice and the ATF to review the bump-fire stock. Many people didn't understand how the ATF could claim the accessory didn't fall under the Gun Control Act or the National Firearms Act.

Although other states have been quick to ban the devices, there hasn't been much movement in Austin. Elva Mendoza, a legislative volunteer for Moms Demand Action, said by phone Tuesday morning that her organization spent a lot of time during the last legislative session fighting two bills — House Bill 1911 and Senate Bill 375 — that would have dismantled the license-to-carry law, but she's not aware of the Texas Legislature taking steps to ban or restrict bump-fire stocks.

Shortly after the Las Vegas shooting, ABC News asked former Army Ranger Frankie McRae to demonstrate how a bump-fire stock works in a segment titled “Las Vegas Shooting: How does a 'bump stock' work?” McRae walked the audience through the steps, showing how to position both hands. He said he doesn't like the bump-fire stock because of its inaccuracy, but he didn't have a problem hitting the center of the paper target a few yards away.

Although 35,000 people submitted comments during the ATF's public comment period for bump-fire stock regulation, my father doesn't think anything is going to happen. The device has been around for nearly a decade. It's not just adult gun owners who enjoy the rapid-fire play, he says, but also their children. There is a bump-fire stock for a .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle, like a Ruger 10/22, which parents often buy for their kids. They use bump-fire stocks to shoot turtles and rabbits.

Another reason he doesn't think it will happen is because it's a Second Amendment issue. It's the reason nothing has happened on the federal level in light of several mass shootings.

“The word infringe [also] means banning parts on firearms,” McRae reminded the 300,000-plus viewers who have watched the video since it was uploaded. “This guy [Stephen Paddock] was evil.”
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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.