Congress Must Act On Bump Stocks Because ATF's 'Hands Are Tied,' Says Agency Group

The organization's president said some lawmakers are "shirking their responsibility."

It’s the responsibility of Congress, not the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to take regulatory action to ban bump stocks and other devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to simulate automatic fire, says the president of an organization made up of current and former agency employees.

In a letter to lawmakers on Thursday, ATFA President Michael Bouchard weighed in on a heated debate about the policy response to the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, in which a gunman used firearms outfitted with bump stocks to spray automatic fire into a crowd of concertgoers, killing at least 58 people and injuring more than 500 others.

“If it is determined that bump [stocks] and similar devices should be regulated, one way it could be accomplished is to support adding a new category to the National Firearms Act of 1934 allowing for the regulation of ‘multi-burst trigger activators,’” wrote Bouchard. “The new category of Federal law would encompass other accessories on the market that make semi-automatic rifles fire like a machine gun but are engineered in a way to avoid regulation under Federal law.”

Bump stocks are legal firearms accessories that replace standard rifle stocks ― the piece that rests against the shoulder ― and harness the weapon’s recoil to slide it rapidly back and forth onto the shooter’s trigger finger. The ATF had previously ruled that it did not have the authority to regulate them or other similar devices, because they are not technically “machine guns,” defined under federal law as firearms that shoot more than one shot per pull of the trigger.

Members of Congress have introduced legislation that would expand the law to cover “any part or combination of parts that is designed and functions to increase the rate of fire of a semiautomatic rifle but does not convert the semiautomatic rifle into a machine gun.”

But other lawmakers, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), as well the National Rifle Association, have come out against legislative action, instead arguing that the ATF should revisit the devices. 

The notion that ATF chose not to regulate an item it had the authority to regulate is false. ATFA President Michael Bouchard

Bouchard, who retired from the ATF in 2007, characterized that argument as an unfair effort to deflect blame onto the agency, which was simply following the letter of the law at the time.

“These accessories DO NOT cause the firearm to shoot more than one shot by the single function of a trigger pull,” he wrote. “The notion that ATF chose not to regulate an item it had the authority to regulate is false. The law is very clear and it does not allow ATF to regulate such accessories.”

Reached by HuffPost on Friday, Bouchard said there was no action the ATF can take unilaterally on bump stocks. He also noted that the agency has been hesitant to go outside the scope of the law for fear of drawing legal or political backlash.

“ATF’s hands are tied, and if they don’t follow the letter of the law, they’ll be brought before Congress to answer questions about why they’re not following the letter of the law,” he said. “Or they’ll end up getting sued, which is not good for the taxpayers because there’s a good chance the government would lose the case.”

Bouchard also said that those punting the issue to ATF were simply “hoping that time passes and the issue goes away until the next incident.”

“In my opinion, they’re just shirking their responsibility and not dealing with something that is a congressional matter to deal with, no one else,” he said. 

Read the full letter below.