The latest school shooting tragedy in Parkland, FL, has left the nation wondering once again why Congress can’t come to any agreement about how to prevent these horrible events.
Will this time be different? Maybe. Because a tenuous, bipartisan consensus has emerged — regarding the sale of bump stocks.
So what exactly is a bump stock? Simple. It’s a (legal) augmentation to a rifle that makes it functionally equivalent to a fully automatic machine gun.
For those not familiar with guns or gun lingo, let’s first clarify terms — as there is often some confusion regarding them.
Fully automatic. This means that when you pull the trigger, the weapon will keep firing at a rapid pace until either the ammunition magazine is empty, or you release the trigger. In the US, fully automatic weapons are essentially banned — it is possible to obtain them, but the process is, by design, lengthy and very difficult.
In 1934, legislation was passed regulating automatic weapons, and for good cause. Americans had just witnessed a plague of violence spawned by the deadly synergy of Prohibition, gangsters, and the tommy gun. In subsequent decades, additional legislation was passed severely restricting the manufacture, and use by civilians, of automatic weapons.
Today, most handguns and assault rifles, such as the infamous AR-15, are what are called semi-automatic. This means that, for every shot fired, the trigger must be pulled — the rate of fire is entirely dependent on how fast a person can physically pull the trigger.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that semi-automatic weapons are without controversy. It’s very easy to squeeze off multiple rounds in less than a second. The recent massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, was carried out with a semi-automatic rifle. As was the Sutherland Springs, TX, shooting. And the Pulse nightclub. And San Bernardino. And Sandy Hook. And Aurora. And others. Not to mention the almost daily violence and murder perpetrated with semi-automatic handguns.
But the bump stock is an entirely different twist. Reminder: the Las Vegas shooting in 2017 is now the deadliest mass shooting in US history, with 58 fatalities. And the bump stock played a role in that.
It’s essentially a replacement part for the “stock” of the gun — the butt of the gun that pushes into the shooter’s shoulder — along with a handle that adds a small “support step” in front of the trigger. The replacement stock works in such a way that the recoil from the initial trigger pull allows the inertia of the gun to cause the rapid re-pulling of the trigger, essentially converting a semi-automatic into an automatic weapon capable of firing hundreds of rounds per minute.
If you’re at all skeptical that this thing works as designed, or that it can really fire as fast as an automatic weapon, look at the first video below for a demonstration.
So what is the legal status of bump stocks? Well, unless you live in California, it’s open season. Although in the wake of Las Vegas many popular online gun retailers voluntarily stopped selling them, they can still be purchased at other sites.
After the Las Vegas massacre last October, there were calls by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to do something about bump stocks. Even the NRA — in a statement criticizing the knee-jerk desire for more gun regulation, and calling for stronger Second Amendment rights — admitted that bump stocks “should be subject to additional regulations.” But in the GOP-controlled Congress, the proposals went nowhere.
Now, after the latest tragedy in Florida, national attention has returned to the issue. Even though shooter Nikolas Cruz did not use a bump stock during his killing spree, it’s obvious that the murder of 17 students and teachers with a semi-automatic rifle begs the question: How many more would have died if he had used one (like the Las Vegas killer)?
Now even President Donald Trump has weighed in on the issue, calling for the device to be banned.
I will be strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health. Raise age to 21 and end sale of Bump Stocks! Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue – I hope!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 22, 2018
This was after the president also called for school teachers and administrators to be armed with concealed weapons as a “safety” measure. The president directed the Justice Department to ban bump stocks, but the agency previously made clear that it cannot ban the device on its own.
In response to Trump’s call for a ban, a spokesperson for the NRA said, “The NRA cannot comment until an actual rule is published with specifics that we can review. The NRA’s stance on this issue has not changed.”
It remains to be seen what if any legislation will appear before Congress, and whether it can make the long and difficult journey to the president’s desk.
What do you think about bump stocks? Should Congress ban them? Leave your civil thoughts in the comment section below.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from bump stock (WASR / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 3.0).