The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Tuesday that it had finalized a rule reclassifying so-called bump stocks — the devices that can make a semiautomatic rifle fire nearly as quickly a fully automatic weapon — as machine guns, which makes it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess them. The agency said a year ago it had the authority to reclassify the devices, and President Trump — in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting — directed the ATF to speed up the process. Tuesday’s announcement — a rare bit of welcome news from the Trump administration — makes it official; White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that owners of the conversion devices will have until March 21 to destroy them or turn them in to the ATF.
This is a good step. Unfortunately, it’s all but certain to be challenged in the courts, and it’s on shaky legal ground because of the way the new rule evolved. The Obama administration determined that because bump stocks have “no automatically functioning mechanical parts and [perform] no automated mechanical functions when installed,” they did not fit the definition of a machine gun in federal law, which meant the ATF lacked the authority to regulate them. Tuesday’s announcement, by contrast, hinges not on the technical specifications, but on the functionality. In essence, if it fires like a machine gun, it’s a machine gun. Cue the lawyers.
We hope the administration prevails in whatever challenges emerge, but the sure-fire way to resolve this would be for Congress to legislate bump stocks and related gadgets out of existence. Such devices serve no function other than to evade the strict congressional limit on machine guns by, as the ATF said, harnessing “the recoil energy of the semiautomatic firearm in a manner that allows the trigger to reset and continue firing” without the shooter having to pull the trigger for each shot.
A mass shooter in Las Vegas used bump stocks affixed to semiautomatic rifles to fire more than 1,000 rounds in a matter of minutes from a 32nd-floor suite of the Mandalay Bay Hotel into a crowd of some 20,000 people, killing 58 concertgoers and injuring hundreds of others. It was the largest single mass shooting in the modern era, drawing attention to bump stocks and sparking outraged demands by many — the Los Angeles Times included — that the devices be banned.
As welcome as this new rule is, it will do little to corral our national problem with gun violence. The vast majority of gun deaths come in ones and twos, led by suicides. Mass killings grab public attention for the obvious reasons — these traumatic events often occur in schools, churches, work sites and on public streets, and despite their regularity, they can still shock the conscience. Getting rid of bump stocks simply trims the outer edges of potential carnage — presuming that the people who have the devices in their personal arsenals follow the new rule and get rid of them. The new rule doesn’t seem to add any new enforcement mechanisms, and no agency maintains any sort of records on who owns such devices. So we shouldn’t be lulled into thinking this small, sane step will make a big difference in our collective safety.
But it is progress. And the president deserves credit for sticking with his promise to find a way to ban bump stocks. We urge him to go one better and work with Congress on a law banning them outright. That would require more political courage on his part, as it would push him further away from the National Rifle Assn.’s position on the issue — while furthering the national interest.