Bump stocks: A chance for bipartisanship

The Las Vegas mass shooting two weekends ago could result in some kind of bipartisan action on guns, something rare in today’s America.

The Vegas shooter, who owned dozens of guns, chose as his murder weapon a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a “bump stock." As millions of Americans now know, that’s a device that upgrades a semiautomatic weapon into one that works more like an automatic rifle.

A semiautomatic rifle (also called an “assault weapon”) shoots a bullet each time the trigger is pulled. An automatic (or one that works like an automatic) continues to fire so long as the trigger is depressed. In other words, all a shooter has to do is pull the trigger once, and the gun goes into rapid-fire mode.

Automatic weapons are prohibited in the United States except under very specific circumstances and regulations. It’s very expensive to own them, and generally only collectors have them.

But under a ruling a few years ago by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a bump stock that alters a semiautomatic rifle into one that acts like an automatic is not a “weapon”. The ATF said a bump stock is an attachment, and therefore not within the ATF’s regulatory purview.

It’s a loophole that allowed Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock to use his bump-stock converted rifle like an automatic weapon, and within a few minutes to kill over 50 concert-goers and injure hundreds more.

It’s hard to find many Americans, except maybe the most hard-core gun enthusiasts, who think that possibility should be allowed to continue.

The Las Vegas horror apparently caused even the National Rifle Association (NRA) to re-evaluate its absolutely-no-give stance on gun control. The NRA issued a statement a few days after the shooting that bump stocks should be discussed and considered for regulation.

That’s “regulation”, not “banning”. It’s yet to be seen what type of regulation would not involve making bump stocks illegal.

And the NRA is nervous about going to Congress for a legislative remedy. The NRA doesn’t want any type of gun control bill introduced because it could then be amended to include other gun control efforts.

So the NRA’s position, at least so far, is that the ATF should change its previous ruling that it can’t legally do anything about bump stocks. Having the ATF act on bump stocks keeps a gun control bill off Congress’s agenda.

It’s likely that Republicans will agree with the NRA’s position. For most Republican office-holders, when the NRA says “Jump”, the GOP says “How high?” But public pressure may result in some type of effort in Congress after all, despite the NRA’s preference.

So it’s likely that the Las Vegas shooting can bring Republicans to the bargaining table on bump stocks. The question now is whether Democrats will be satisfied to negotiate just on that item.

Most Democrats, certainly their leaders, are committed to more gun control than just bump stocks. Most of their elected lawmakers and spokespeople want background checks for gun show buyers, more mental health investigations for buyers, and a ban on high-capacity magazines for ammunition. Some also want to ban semiautomatic weapons entirely.

There’s sure to be political pressure on Democrats from their supporters not to settle just for an end to bump stocks, especially right now when the Vegas shooting has rocketed gun control back into the public consciousness. Many won’t be willing to defer more gun control until later.

There will also be gun activists within the Republican base who will try to limit any action on bump stocks to an absolute minimum, maybe to slow-walk the issue until it fades from public attention.

Whether enough Republicans and Democrats will summon enough courage to achieve meaningful control of bump stocks, and only bump stocks, in this particular effort will provide a key experiment into where bipartisanship is in America today.

The public should have something to say about that. Does a political center actually exist in the United States in the year 2017? And if so, can agreement on bump stocks lead to agreement on a broader agenda of issues important to Americans?

We can only hope.

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