States and cities are taking the lead on bump stock bans

(AP) – In the immediate aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, there was a fevered pitch to ban bump stocks, the device that allowed the shooter’s semi-automatic rifles to mimic the rapid fire of machine guns.

With that push stalled at the federal level, a handful of states and some cities are moving ahead with bans of their own.

Massachusetts and New Jersey — two states at the time led by Republican governors — as well as the cities of Denver and Columbia, South Carolina, have enacted laws prohibiting the sale and possession of the devices, which were attached to a half-dozen of the long guns found in the hotel room of the Las Vegas shooter who in October killed 58 people and injured hundreds more attending a nearby outdoor concert. A little over a dozen other states are also considering bans on bump stocks.

Gun-control advocates say the push fits a pattern in gun politics: inaction in Washington that forces states to take the lead. Gun-rights advocates call it a knee-jerk reaction that will do little to stop bad guys from killing, and vow a legal challenge.

For Zach Elmore, the issue is deeply personal. His sister among those wounded in the Las Vegas attack. He finds hope in the statewide and local efforts to ban bump stocks.

“Hopefully it’s the start of a big movement versus just a flash in the pan,” Elmore said. “Obviously you cannot legislate (against) evil, but you can legislate the things with which bad people will use to perpetrate evil.”

The devices were originally intended to help people with disabilities and were little known and little sold until the Las Vegas shooting. They fit over the stock and pistol grip of a semi-automatic rifle and allow the weapon to fire rapidly, some 400 to 800 rounds per minute, mimicking a fully automatic firearm.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reviewed the devices and approved them in 2010, ruling they did not amount to machine guns that are regulated under the National Firearms Act that dates to the 1930s.

Richard Vasquez was assistant chief of the ATF’s technology bureau and led the review of bump stocks. He stands by the agency’s 2010 ruling, which relied on a key difference between semi-automatic and fully automatic firearms: While semi-automatic firearms require a separate and independent pull of the trigger to fire a bullet, fully automatic firearms can fire multiple rounds with a single trigger pull. ATF determined bump stocks didn’t convert a semi-automatic firearm into one that is fully auto.

“It’s a proper determination. Everybody wants to jump the gun and say that ATF made a mistake,” said Vasquez, who left the agency in 2014. “ATF didn’t make a mistake.”

The federal agency is reviewing its ruling, something Vasquez and others caution is a dangerous move without Congress first changing the law to specifically make such devices illegal.

“If ATF is allowed to write a regulation to change the definition of this device, instead of a law, it’s going to give all government agencies authority to change their regulations, which could affect us in a wide variety of ways,” Vasquez warned.

Legislation in Congress has remained in limbo despite early signs from a bipartisan mix of lawmakers and advocates who voiced alarm that such a device was deemed legal and on the market. Even the National Rifle Association sounded open to great regulation of bump stocks.

Joyce Malcolm, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law, said the bans likely would withstand a legal challenge, but she wonders about more practical matters: How might they be enforced?

“I don’t see a real constitutional issue. I just wonder about actually getting these devices out of circulation for people who already have them,” she said.

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