President Donald Trump announced on Friday that his Justice Department would proceed with plans to ban bump stocks, the firearms accessories the Las Vegas gunman used during his October attack on a country music festival that left 58 dead and hundreds more injured.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions followed Trump’s announcement on Friday with a statement saying he’d filed a proposed rules change that would “effectively” make the devices illegal under federal law.
The moves mark Trump’s latest step toward unilaterally outlawing bump stocks and other similar accessories, which he’s repeatedly vowed to do in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last month.
The president’s announcement came a day before the highly anticipated March for Our Lives, a well-attended series of rallies against gun violence on Saturday that was organized by student survivors of the Parkland shooting.
Although Trump didn’t personally address the movement from his golf resort in Mar-a-Lago, where he spent the weekend, his decision to roll out new action on bump stocks may have been an effort to send a message that he is doing something on guns ― and in particular, a modest measure that receives broad bipartisan support.
To get a better sense of the long and potentially difficult road ahead, let’s take a closer look at what’s going on with this effort.
First, it’s important to understand that bump stocks are not firearms. A bump stock is a component, typically made of plastic, that replaces a rifle’s standard stock and harnesses the gun’s recoil to slide the firearm back and forth onto the shooter’s trigger finger, allowing it to fire like an automatic weapon. (In the image below, the bump stock is the piece resting against the shooter’s shoulder.)
Federal law strictly regulates private ownership of automatic firearms, which the 1934 National Firearms Act defines as “machineguns.” But in most states, anyone who can buy a gun can get a semi-automatic rifle and a bump stock.
Although firearms equipped with bump stocks may fire like so-called “machineguns,” federal law specifically defines that term as any weapon that can “shoot automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has previously determined that it does not have the authority to regulate bump stocks because they don’t fit this definition. Not only are bump stocks not firearms, but because the accessories still require users to pull the trigger each time they fire a cartridge, the agency has ruled that automatic firing is not technically activated by “single function of the trigger.”
The Trump administration now wants the ATF to change its determination. In his statement Friday, Sessions laid out a proposal to amend the regulations and clarify that bump stocks fall within the definition of “machinegun” under federal law, claiming that they do allow semi-automatic firearms to initiate a “continuous firing cycle with a single pull of the trigger.”
Because bump stocks ”[allow] the trigger to reset and continue firing without additional physical manipulation of the trigger by the shooter,” according to the document, “a semiautomatic firearm to which a bump-stock-type device is attached is able to produce automatic fire with a single pull of the trigger.”
It’s not yet clear if this attempt to change the reading of federal law will pass muster. Critics from across the political spectrum believe the administration’s move is likely to face a legal challenge and may ultimately be struck down.
Others have argued that Congress should act instead, and change the federal statute on machine guns to specifically cover bump stocks and similar devices. Although congressional lawmakers have introduced bipartisan legislation to prohibit such accessories, the National Rifle Association and a number of Republicans have said they’d prefer that the ATF handle the matter by simply changing its ruling.
GOP leaders on Capitol Hill have opted not to take up the bump stock issue, allowing them to duck accusations that they’re considering a gun ban.
It remains to be seen how this will all play out, but if Trump is ultimately successful in his effort to ban bump stocks, it will take a while. Although Sessions filed his Notice of Proposed Rulemaking last week, it hadn’t been published in the Federal Register as of Monday. Justice Department officials expect that to happen sometime this week, initiating a 90-day comment period for members of the public.
At the end of that three-month window, the Justice Department must decide whether or not to proceed with a Final Rule. If it does, it must post that document in the Federal Register as well, in which it would lay out an effective date to be “no less than thirty days ” after publication.
In the best-case scenario for the Trump administration, it would be at least four months before bump stocks are officially banned. At that point, anyone in possession of a bump stock or similar accessory would “be required to surrender, destroy, or otherwise render the devices permanently inoperable,” or be subject to stiff penalties under federal law, including imprisonment of up to 10 years or a fine of up to $250,000.