In the wake of the horror in Las Vegas, Americans are receiving an education about “bump fire stocks” for rifles. But it is a mistake to think that bump fire stocks are the issue posed by the Las Vegas shooting. The real issue is firepower.
A bump fire stock is the add-on mechanism that the Las Vegas mass killer used to accelerate the rate of fire delivered by his AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifles to mimic fully-automatic machine gun fire. It was terrifying in its effectiveness. From his perch on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, the shooter repeatedly strafed the thousands of people attending a country music concert. The toll from the most deadly mass shooting in our history – 58 dead and almost 500 wounded – resembled that of a military engagement on a battlefield.
Machine guns have been subject to strict licensing and registration since the 1930s and the manufacture and sale of new machine guns for civilian use was finally prohibited by federal statute in 1986. There is no question that devices like the bump fire stock, designed to convert semi-automatics into machine guns, should be subject to the same rules as machine guns. The usually “no compromise” National Rifle Association almost immediately felt the pressure building for some kind of policy response to Las Vegas. The NRA quickly sought to relieve the pressure by suggesting that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) review its earlier ruling that such stocks are not subject to the machine gun rules under current law. By avoiding any appeal for new legislation, the NRA would ensure that any action taken in response to the Las Vegas shooting would be consistent with its mantra “we don’t need new laws; we need to enforce the laws we have.” However, the NRA’s statement added this: “The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”
For an organization that has argued that machine guns are constitutionally protected, this is an interesting concession. Indeed, if a product that allows a gun to fire like a machine gun should be subject to more restrictive regulation, this seems to imply that some guns are a greater threat to public safety than other guns. But if the nature of the gun makes a difference, what happens to the argument that “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”? It’s not just the people that matter. It must be the guns as well.
The NRA is fond of using slippery slope arguments to suggest that even the most modest gun control measures pave the way toward confiscation of all guns. But has the NRA stepped on its own slippery slope here? Once it concedes that the nature of the gun matters, where do we draw the line? As a federal appeals court found in upholding Maryland’s ban on semiautomatic assault weapons against Second Amendment attack, “the automatic firing of all the ammunition in a large-capacity thirty-round magazine takes about two seconds, whereas a semiautomatic rifle can empty the same magazine in as little as five seconds.” Even without a bump fire stock, Stephen Paddock’s semiautomatic AR-15s, equipped with high-capacity ammunition magazines and a host of other military features, would have enabled him to inflict unspeakable carnage from the 32nd floor.
The real issue here is not bump fire stocks. The real issue is firepower: the capacity of a shooter to effectively fire large numbers of rounds in a short period of time, thus maximizing the lethality of an attack. Machine guns, semi-automatic assault weapons, high-capacity ammunition magazines, bump fire stocks and other modifications to accelerate rate of fire expose the general public to a risk of devastating violence that, under any sensible policy reckoning, outweighs any enjoyment shooters may derive from these products. Our current policy on machine guns should be extended to all these high-firepower products: subject those already on the market to strict regulation and prohibit future manufacture and sale for the civilian market.
Firepower is the common element in virtually all of the mass shootings that repeatedly have traumatized our nation. Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Orlando and now Las Vegas; each involved either a semiautomatic assault rifle or high-capacity ammunition magazines, or both. The gun lobby has long insisted that the term “assault weapon” is misapplied to semi-automatics, even those with military features, which the NRA says are merely “cosmetic”. It is telling, though, that Stephen Paddock did not attach his bump fire stocks to hunting rifles; he attached them to AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifles with design features that make sense only for the battlefield. That they are so easily converted to replicate automatic fire is yet another reason to subject them to special restrictions.
Given the signals the NRA is sending, something may well be done about bump fire stocks. If so, we will have nibbled at the margins of gun violence, the pressure to do more will be relieved and the nation will move on, to the next slaughter.
But when we experience our next gun violence mass trauma, it will be clear that bump fire stocks were never really the issue. The issue is firepower and even the NRA now concedes that some firepower may be too much for public safety to tolerate.