Politics

As GOP Passes Buck on Bump Stocks, ATF Pushes Back

Momentum to regulate the devices used in the Las Vegas massacre has stalled

Antoinette Cannon, who worked as a trauma nurse and treated victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, leaves a rose at each of the 58 white crosses at a makeshift memorial on the south end of the Las Vegas Strip earlier this month. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Efforts to ban bump stocks have come to a screeching halt, with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives once again indicating it does not have the authority to reclassify and regulate the devices.

The ATF wrote letters in 2010 and 2013 explaining how current laws — the Gun Control Act (1968) and National Firearms Act (1934) — do not provide an avenue for the bureau to regulate the gun attachments, which enable shooters to fire semiautomatic weapons at nearly the rate of automatic ones.

Four years later, that has not changed. A decade has gone by since Congress last passed a gun law.

“The ATF does NOT have the authority to address bump-fire stocks — and has made this point clear to Congress MULTIPLE times,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein tweeted Friday after lawmakers were briefed by the bureau.

The California Democrat reintroduced a bill, the Automatic Gunfire Prevention Act, earlier this month to ban the manufacture, sale and possession of bump stocks and similar devices. She has been working to secure a GOP co-sponsor for her bill, a Democratic aide said, but so far hasn’t found any takers.

“She’s also working to ensure senators understand the need for legislation and that ATF can’t address this issue on its own,” the aide said. “The [National Rifle Association] has claimed otherwise in an attempt to muddy the waters.”

The NRA initially surprised gun control advocates when it released a statement saying bump stocks and similar devices “should be subject to additional regulations.” But the group said that was an issue best left to the ATF — which lacks the legal authority to act on it. The NRA has opposed each piece of legislation lawmakers have introduced so far.

The NRA did not follow up on a request for comment Tuesday.

Limited powers

Lawmakers renewed their interest in bump stocks in response to the Las Vegas shooting — the deadliest in U.S. history — on Oct. 1, when 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on concertgoers and slaughtered 58 people and injured more than 500 others. Investigators found 12 rifles in Paddock’s 32nd-floor hotel room fitted with bump stocks.

Within days of the shooting, lawmakers from both parties called for, at the very least, a review of whether bump stocks should remain legal. Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassleysignaled he was open to holding hearings on the matter. A handful of GOP senators signed a letter to the ATF requesting that it review its position on the devices.

Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, introduced the House version of Feinstein’s bill to ban bump stocks.

But Republican leadership on the Hill has been mum for more than a week after House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin said ATF regulation would be “the smartest, quickest fix.”

At the briefing with lawmakers last week, ATF officials pushed for a “legislative approach” to regulate bump stocks, one House aide told the Washington Examiner. They reiterated they do not have the legal authority to institute a ban.

Conversations between lawmakers and the ATF are ongoing, a GOP congressional source said. Republican leaders remain hopeful that the ATF can regulate bump stocks without new legislation, even though the bureau has made clear for nearly a decade that it cannot — or will not.

Mounting frustration

Democrats have grown increasingly frustrated as optimism has faded that a bipartisan effort could lead to a rare gun bill passing into law.

“[Republicans] don’t want to have to vote against the gun lobby, even on something as commonsense as banning bump stocks,” Cicilline said Monday.

“That’s why they’re punting this issue to the ATF, instead of doing their jobs. The fact is that bump stocks are legal under existing statutes. The only way to get them out of our communities is for Congress to pass legislation banning them.”

The National Rifle Association has said it is open to regulations on bump stocks but has opposed all legislation that would do so.

Reps. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican, introduced their own bipartisan bill banning bump stocks a week after Cicilline produced his.

Some Democrats have balked at the Curbelo-Moulton bill, saying it does not penalize violators strongly enough.

“Rep. Curbelo’s bill almost mirrors the Automatic Gunfire Prevention Act, but it carries weaker penalties for criminal violators,” Rep. Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat, said in a statement. “There is no reason to undermine our position at this point just to satisfy the NRA.”

Moulton admitted that the bill is not sufficient to prevent mass gun violence, but he said it is a “crucial starting point.”

“Keeping this conversation going, passing this legislation, and listening to the American people will allow us to help make America safer,” he said, “so that we do not need to live in fear of weapons of war being used against our families and friends.”

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