The Las Vegas massacre has breached Republicans’ solid opposition to additional gun restrictions, prompting party leaders as well as the National Rifle Assn. to say they will consider limiting so-called bump stocks, which can turn assault rifles into virtual machine guns.
The White House signaled a willingness Thursday to consider a ban, and the NRA, which has powerful sway among Republicans, said it could back a limit on bump stocks — but as a federal regulation, not law.
“The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semiautomatic rifles to function like fully automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations,” the group said.
The NRA’s blessing probably will increase the number of Republicans willing to back restrictions.
The statement marked a rare concession by the powerful gun-rights organization. At the same time, however, the call for regulations from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives could provide a way to deflect pressure for congressional action — and tough votes — that might lead to broader gun restrictions.
During the Obama administration, the ATF authorized sale of the stocks, saying that they were not banned by existing federal gun laws.
Some Democrats quickly denounced the NRA’s move as a dodge by the gun lobby to avoid new legislation.
Still, the shift was notable for Republicans who, under great pressure from the NRA and other gun rights groups, have resisted past efforts at gun control, even after devastating mass shootings.
At the White House, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration was looking forward to congressional hearings and legislation to be considered.
“We certainly welcome that, would like to be part of that conversation,” Sanders said. “We would like to see a clear understanding of the facts.”
A day earlier, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to ban bump stocks by law, but only fellow Democrats joined her.
A short time later, top GOP leaders in the House and Senate, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, had signaled their interest in working on the issue.
“Clearly that’s something we need to look into,” Ryan told MSNBC host Hugh Hewitt in an interview scheduled to air this weekend.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) said he was planning to draft legislation limiting access to bump stocks, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) sent a letter to federal officials asking them to reconsider how they regulate the devices.
“This is definitely an area where we’re going to look and be able to act on,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said on Fox News.
A number of lawmakers, including Ryan, who describes himself as an avid hunter, said they were unfamiliar with bump stocks before the Las Vegas shooting Sunday night. The gunman appears to have used the devices for rapid shooting.
Lawmakers appeared concerned that the device offers a way to get around the ban on new, fully automatic weapons, which have been outlawed for years in most cases other than for military use.
Senators on Thursday morning privately discussed ways they could tackle the issue as they met for routine business.
Even Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, a hard-line conservative group, told reporters earlier in the week he’d be willing to consider banning bump stocks if the Senate passes a bill and sends it to the House.
“I will tell you that the unique aspect of the bump stock and how you would literally transform a semiautomatic weapon into an automatic weapon is something that I think bears looking into,” Cornyn told Texas reporters Wednesday on a conference call.
He said he had asked Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) to convene a hearing “and look into it.” By Thursday, though, Cornyn’s office clarified that he was not talking about legislation.
One key Republican, Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who cosponsored an ultimately unsuccessful bipartisan effort after the 2012 Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting to broaden the requirement for background checks before gun purchases, was noncommittal Thursday. He said he was just learning about bump stocks, and needed more information.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told reporters it was too soon to consider legislation, as the investigation in Las Vegas was just underway.
“Once we have the facts and understand the situation, we can proceed forward,” Cruz said.
The willingness to consider some restrictions, coming after the Las Vegas shooting, which left 58 dead and hundreds wounded in what authorities said is the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, may indicate limits on the gun lobby’s reach into politics and policy.
Polls show Americans overwhelmingly want measures that could curb gun violence. Pressure has mounted as cultural figures, including late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel, have delivered heart-wrenching criticisms of congressional inaction.
Democrats, who at times have splintered on firearms issues, with lawmakers from conservative states joining Republicans to defeat gun bills, welcomed the changed outlook.
They have called on President Trump to cross partisan lines and push Congress toward legislation to reduce gun violence that polls show most Americans would support.
“Will the president stand up?” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “The president has a choice.”
Many Democrats, however, will not want to limit action to bump stocks.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said bump stock legislation was one approach, but no substitute for a background check bill that she said would have bipartisan support in the House if Ryan would allow a vote.
“It really is all up to the speaker,” she said. “Is he going to bring the bill to the floor?”
At the same time, lawmakers were skeptical that initial interest in limited bipartisan legislation would translate into enough actual votes to write the restriction into law.
Even when a gunman opened fire on Republican lawmakers practicing for a charity baseball game earlier this year, critically injuring GOP House whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, it did not motivate Congress to act on gun laws.
In an interview airing Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Scalise defended moving slowly on the issue.
“To think that we’re now all experts and know how to write some, you know, panacea law, it’s fallacy. Let’s focus on the facts. Let’s get the facts and let’s go focus on some of the problems,” he said.
Such remarks frustrate Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), who has become a leader on firearms safety measures since the 2012 killings of 20 first-graders and six adults at Newtown.
“We need to move Republicans from being open to the idea to being willing to actually work on it,” he said.
3:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction and analysis.
The article was first published at 12:50 p.m.