WASHINGTON — The rifle modification that helped a Las Vegas gunman kill at least 58 people in Las Vegas this week was approved as legal by former president Barack Obama’s administration in 2010.
Since that green light by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “bump stocks” — which enable a semiautomatic rifle to simulate fully automatic fire — have become easy to obtain for as little as $99 and are widely marketed as adding an additional thrill for fans of high-powered rifles.
Police discovered that Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had at least 12 bump stocks in his arsenal of 23 weapons in his Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino room.
In an ironic twist, bump stocks are even banned at the gun range of the National Rifle Association in Fairfax, Va., according to media reports, because they increase safety risks by making a standard AR-15-style rifle harder to control. Breaking from their precedent of not relenting on gun regulations, the NRA called for a new review of bump stocks in a Thursday afternoon statement.
“The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations,” the statement read. Some Republicans in Congress have said they are open to considering a ban, and President Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Thursday the president thinks regulating bump stocks deserves discussion.
The bump stock’s inventor, an Air Force veteran in Texas, has previously said that he created the device to help gun users who “weren’t able to fire as fast as we wanted.”
“It’s very difficult to control except under perfect conditions,” said Steven Howard, a gun and firearms expert based in Michigan.
“It’s more of a toy than anything else,” Howard added. “The reason this guy was so successful was that he was shooting at something the size of a football field.”
In 2010, a Texas-based company called Slide Fire sought permission from the federal ATF bureau for permission to sell the devices.
Slide Fire’s justification, ATF documents show, was that because of the convenient design, the bump stock would help people ``whose hands have limited mobility’’ fire an AR-15 military style rifle. Because the bump stock merely mimics automatic firing capability but does not contain any other modifications, it would not be subject to the tight restrictions on automatic weapons, the ATF ruled.
“The stock has no automatically functioning mechanical parts or springs and performs no automatic mechanical function when installed,” said a 2010 letter from the ATF signed by John R. Spencer, head of the firearms technology branch.
“Accordingly, we find that the ‘bump-stock’ is a firearm part and is not regulated as a firearm under the Gun Control Act or the National Firearms Act,” Spencer wrote.
Slide Fire, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, says on its website that it has currently suspended sales.
The website bills the bump stock as “fun, exciting, and entertaining” and makes no mention of the disability justification previously presented to the government.
“It was so easy! Once you slid it forward, it just fires, simple press,” a video testimonial on Slide Fire’s website says.
“It was very, very exciting. More fun than I was anticipating, it was very fun to shoot. It was a blast!” one man says.
A sound analysis from the New York Times suggests the modification allowed Paddock to fire about 90 rounds in 10 seconds, about the rate of a fully automatic weapon.
For comparison, the gunman in the Orlando nightclub shooting, who used a regular semiautomatic rifle without a bump stock, was able to fire 24 rounds in about nine seconds, the analysis shows.
“Technology outpaces government speed,” said Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, in a Thursday interview on CNN.
“People are ingenious, and they have come up with a way do things legally — to make a gun fully automatic,” Kinzinger said.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California is introducing a Senate bill to ban the device altogether. On Capitol Hill this week, several Republicans said they did not know about the device previously but have been troubled to learn how it mimics the functionality of automatic weapons, which are illegal.
Kinzinger, the Illinois Republican, has appealed to the ATF to reconsider its 2010 decision. He has also said he’s open to leading legislation that bans bump stocks.
“The ATF must re-evaluate these devices, and it is my hope that they conclude these mechanisms violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the law,” Kinzinger wrote in a letter to his House colleagues sent Wednesday.
“These fully-automatic simulator devices have no place in civil society,” he wrote.
Among gun enthusiasts, however, the threat of illegality has only driven up sales. On Slide Fire’s website, the company claims to be out of all models because of an unprecedented backlog. Gun broker reselling sites are also cashing in, as bump stocks are selling at prices more than triple the original value.
Howard, the Michigan gun expert and lawyer, said he feels Congress should not act to ban bump stocks.
“Only thing you’re going to succeed in doing is making criminals out of people who weren’t criminals in the first place,” he said.
For one, Howard said there are other ways to retrofit a semiautomatic weapon to be able to fire more rapidly, all of which would still be legal even if bump stocks are not. Also, Howard said, so many have been sold since 2010 that it would be nearly impossible to rid them from the market.
“There’s too many out there,” he said. “If they restricted them when they first came out, it might have done some good. . . . Now it’s like trying to get rid of mosquitoes, you just can’t.”Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWesley.