Two months after a shooter in Las Vegas killed 58 people and injured hundreds more, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Tuesday that it has just started reviewing whether it has the authority to ban bump stocks, used by the shooter to make his guns behave like automatic weapons.
After the mass murder, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress began calling for additional regulation of the devices. When the National Rifle Association weighed in saying it opposed new legislation, but only would support regulatory measures by ATF, lawmakers called on ATF officials to determine whether the agency had the authority to regulate bump stocks without congressional action.
Months later, ATF has announced it is starting that process – the day before ATF’s Acting Director Thomas E. Brandon is testifying in front of a Senate committee hearing that was previously postponed.
Supporters of bump stock legislation saw the announcement as an excuse for more foot-dragging. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the announcement “kicks the can down the road.”
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“If ATF were to change its view after a six-month review, lawsuits would be filed immediately. Gun manufacturers make millions selling these devices and they would seize on an agency flip flop to tie up new regulations for years,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Legislation is the only answer and Congress should not attempt to pass the buck by waiting for the ATF.”
“The ATF has been over this before,” said Chris Harris, communications director for Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. “Sen. Murphy believes that Congress could quickly act to provide statutory clarity that ATF needs to step in and ban bump stocks. There is bipartisan agreement on the issue – this isn’t hard.”
But Bill Earle, vice president of the ATF Association, which is comprised of current and former members of ATF, said he believes this is a step forward by a bureau looking to genuinely progress on the issue.
“I think we’re seeing bipartisan support on this, but not enough bipartisan support in Congress to somehow craft a law change,” said Earle, a retired chief financial officer at the ATF. “This seems like the Justice Department trying to assist the ATF by looking at a rulemaking process that could reclassify bump stocks without new legislation.”
Earle said the delay was likely due to the “difficult process” of setting up such a rulemaking review. He said reviews like this can take anywhere from three to six months, but he believes “there’s some urgency to get this done.”
At issue is whether a bump stock can be classified as a machine gun, which ATF already has the power to regulate. The accessory allows legal semi-automatic weapons to essentially function as illegal automatic ones, with a pull of the trigger initiating a spray of fire rather than a single bullet. Accessories can be classified as machine guns if they convert a firearm into a machine gun.
In a letter to Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., who sponsored legislation to ban bump stocks, the ATF Association wrote in mid-October that the bureau did not currently have the authority to regulate bump stocks. The letter said creators of bump stocks and similar accessories specifically design items to avoid regulation under current federal law.
The NRA has come out against all legislation such as Curbelo’s that attempts to ban bump stocks. When asked for response on the recent development, Curbelo’s press office pointed to a past statement he made to McClatchy, when he called any additional reviews of ATF’s authority on this issue a “waste of time.”
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment by press time.