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Trump administration takes a step to ban bump stocks

The Justice Department formally submitted a rule to ban devices that can turn semiautomatic weapons into machine guns.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi speaks during a meeting with President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and state and local officials on school safety at the White House.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi speaks during a meeting with President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and state and local officials on school safety at the White House.
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Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

On Saturday, the Justice Department formally submitted a proposed regulation to ban bump stocks — devices that can turn high-capacity rifles into automatic weapons. President Donald Trump in February signed a memo directing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to approve the rule; it would take months to implement, but it does not require approval from Congress.

The regulation would include “bump stock type devices” in the legal definition of “machine gun,” of which federal law prohibits the possession, sale, or manufacture. It’s now up to the Office of Management and Budget to approve the rule, after which it would be published and subject to a public comment period before any final version is passed.

”President Trump is absolutely committed to ensuring the safety and security of every American and he has directed us to propose a regulation addressing bump stocks,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a statement. “To that end, the Department of Justice has submitted to the Office of Management and Budget a notice of a proposed regulation to clarify that the National Firearms and Gun Control Act defines ‘machine gun’ to include bump stock type devices.”

The move comes in response to the February mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead. The shooting has spurred a public outcry for tighter gun control laws. There is no evidence the Parkland shooter used a bump stock, but the gunman in the October shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people and injured hundreds more had bump stocks in his arsenal.

Bump stocks can unleash continuous rounds of bullets with just one squeeze of the trigger

A bump stock is essentially a kit that can convert semiautomatic weapons into fully automatic ones. While a semiautomatic weapon requires one trigger pull for each round fired, with automatic weapons, one trigger push can unleash continuous rounds. The Associated Press in October explained how bump stocks work:

The device basically replaces the gun’s shoulder rest, with a “support step” that covers the trigger opening. By holding the pistol grip with one hand and pushing forward on the barrel with the other, the shooter’s finger comes in contact with the trigger. The recoil causes the gun to buck back and forth, “bumping” the trigger.

Technically, that means the finger is pulling the trigger for each round fired, keeping the weapon a legal semi-automatic.

According to the Washington Post, bump stocks have been around since about 2001, but the government hasn’t regulated them because their modifications don’t entail alterations to the weapon’s mechanical components. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has introduced legislation that would ban bump stocks, but it has not gotten anywhere in Congress.

There’s debate over whether the Trump administration can do this without Congress

In December, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) began reviewing whether bump stocks are legal in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting. The agency said in February that it received more than 36,000 comments on the issue after announcing its review, of which the NRA has been supportive.

There has been some question about whether the ATF, which is part of the Justice Department, actually has the authority to ban bump stocks on its own. After the review was announced, Feinstein said, “current law does not allow the agency to ban or regulate bump-fire stocks” and said Congress needed to act.

The New York Times reported in December that acting ATF Director Thomas Brandon and other officials have indicated they don’t believe the agency can act alone, both publicly and privately. Trump and the Justice Department appear to be trying to go ahead anyway. It is unclear if anything will come of it.

The gun control debate has intensified in the wake of the Parkland shooting in February, and while some steps have been taken to tighten laws and regulations, not much has changed.

On Friday, Florida passed a law that would place new restrictions on guns sold there; the NRA almost immediately sued to block it. That same day, there was another shooting at a veterans home in Yountville, California, that left four people dead.

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