President Trump was right Tuesday in insisting that the federal government ban “bump stocks.” But there’s less than meets the eye to the directive he sent to the Justice Department to rush through a new regulation, already in the works, that would ban the devices, because sure as shooting there will be a legal challenge that probably will succeed. That’s why this problem needs to be addressed by Congress in the form of a more expansive law barring devices crafted by creative gun makers to circumvent the intent of federal gun laws.
With a few exceptions, automatic weapons — think machine guns — are banned in this country, and rightfully so. They exist for one purpose: to kill massive numbers of enemy soldiers at a superhuman pace. They are weapons of war and do not belong in civilian hands.
But Congress, in its lack of wisdom, has not seen fit to enact a permanent ban on semiautomatic weapons. These are guns that, with the pull of a trigger, eject the spent casing and load a fresh cartridge, which means that the gun can fire as quickly as the shooter can pull the trigger until the ammunition magazine is exhausted. For a 10-cartridge magazine, now the lawful maximum capacity in California, that’s 10 bullets in a couple of seconds. Add a few more seconds to swap out magazines, and 10 more bullets go flying in a couple more seconds. And so on. In states without a cap, a typical magazine for a semiautomatic rifle holds 30 rounds. That’s a lot of dead bodies in fewer than 10 seconds.
But apparently that’s not fast enough. Tinkerers came up with workarounds to the ban on automatic rifles: The bump stock, the trigger crank and other technological variations. The bump stock, for example, uses the recoil of the firing of a bullet to slide the trigger back and forth against the shooter’s immobile finger, accelerating the pace of gunfire.
The Las Vegas massacre gunman used such devices to turn his semiautomatic rifles into guns that fired, by one count, 98 shots in 10 seconds. That’s a machine gun in all but name. But because the bump stock has “no automatically functioning mechanical parts and performs no automated mechanical functions when installed,” the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined in 2010 and again in 2012 that, under the definitions included in federal law, it lacked the authority to regulate them.
But Trump has ordered the same bureau to propose a rule outlawing “all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns.” We have no quibble with the ATF banning the devices, but in typical fashion for this administration, Trump thinks he can make something happen by waving a pen. It’s not so easy. As much as he loathes pretty much everything the Obama administration did, Trump is stuck with the legacy of the ATF’s last review of this issue. He can’t just declare as a matter of policy that the last administration’s ATF got it wrong and his administration got it right.
If the ATF follows through on Trump’s directive, this will wind up in court, and the administration will have to explain to judges’ satisfaction why the new reading of the law is correct and Obama’s was wrong. Although courts often defer to an agency’s judgment when federal laws leave room for interpretation, defending the change would still be a heavy, and lengthy, lift.
The easiest, and fastest, resolution to this would be for Congress to act (please, stop laughing). The ATF made its first determination that bump stocks and related devices fell outside its regulatory authority based on what seems to be a pretty clear reading of the law. Congress can shortcut the predictable courtroom fight over regulatory change by simply passing a clean bill to ban all devices designed to circumvent established laws and regulations restricting certain firearms. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has been pushing just such a fix for years, which always dies under a hail of opposition from the gun lobby.
Of course, bump stocks, trigger cranks and the like had no role in the murders of 17 students and adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last week. The gun involved was a legally purchased semiautomatic rifle, according to authorities. But by sending a directive now about a fix to the last major massacre, Trump appears to be doing something when in reality he’s doing next to nothing. Issues such as these require bold leadership, and he’s clearly not the person for that job. But is Congress? Never mind — that question has already been asked and answered.