In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, Republicans on Capitol Hill have shown deep reluctance to consider any gun legislation, worried that Democrats will use the shooting as a pretext to restrict law-abiding citizens’ Second Amendment rights.
This reluctance is understandable, particularly in the wake of the near-instantaneous effort by some Democrats to politicize this tragedy. But it is a mistake. The Las Vegas attack exposed a gaping hole in the existing and widely supported automatic-weapons ban – and Republicans can easily close it without infringing on constitutional rights.
Law enforcement authorities have confirmed that the shooter, Stephen Paddock, had 12 weapons in his hotel room fitted with “bump-fire stocks,” devices that effectively turn semiautomatic rifles into machine guns. Under current law, machine guns – weapons that fire multiple rounds with a single trigger pull – are almost completely banned in the United States, as are devices that convert rifles to do so. Bump-fire stocks get around this ban by using the gun’s recoil to repeatedly “bump” the weapon back into the shooter’s trigger finger, creating an automatic effect. As Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Special Agent in Charge Jill Snyder explained, “Bump-fire stocks, while simulating automatic fire, do not actually alter the firearm to fire automatically, making them legal under current federal law.”
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Republicans should immediately announce their intention to pass legislation banning such devices.
A ban on bump-fire stocks and similar devices would not infringe on gun rights. Automatic weapons are already banned as part of the 1986 Firearms Owners Protection Act, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. Bump-fire stocks are designed to circumvent a ban that Republicans already are on record supporting. Closing this loophole does not restrict gun rights; it simply comports with the intent of existing firearms laws.
This is an opportunity for bipartisanship. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and 33 Senate Democrats have introduced the Automatic Gun Fire Prevention Act, “a bill to close a loophole that allows semi-automatic weapons to be easily modified to fire at the rate of automatic weapons.” The Feinstein bill would “ban the sale, transfer, importation, manufacture or possession of bump stocks, trigger cranks and similar accessories that accelerate a semi-automatic rifle’s rate of fire” and “makes clear that its intent is to target only those accessories that increase a semi-automatic rifle’s rate of fire.”
So far not one Republican has co-sponsored the bill. Some, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Senate Republican, have expressed interest in learning more about the issue. Others have dismissed it outright. “I’m a Second Amendment man,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., declared. “I’m not for any gun control, okay? None.”
This is a mistake. Republicans should join Feinstein to solve this problem. They should ensure that there is clear language in the bill to prevent the ATF from reclassifying semiautomatic weapons as machine guns so that it does not become a backdoor effort to ban currently lawful weapons. Then they should then make it Feinstein’s job to rally her caucus to support the effort and not blow it up with more expansive legislation restricting Second Amendment rights. If Democrats then insist on more, it means they want to politicize the issue more than to arrive at a solution.
There is so little we agree on these days, but this is a chance for both parties to come together on something that most Americans would likely support – including the vast majority of gun owners. Some Republicans might oppose such a ban because they actually do not support the automatic weapons ban itself. Fair enough. But that battle was lost more than three decades ago. The ban is the law of the land. It has broad public support, including from the National Rifle Association. Opposing the closure of a loophole that was just used to massacre at least 58 Americans and injure hundreds more is the very definition of a losing battle. The Democrats’ principal talking point is that Republicans refuse to take even the most common-sense measures to reduce gun violence in the United States. If the GOP can’t take this common-sense step, the party will be proving its critics right.
Would a bump stock ban have prevented or lessened the tragedy in Las Vegas? We’ll never know for sure. We do know that the automatic-weapons ban has largely worked. Paddock needed these devices to create a simulated machine gun because he was likely unable to obtain a real machine gun. So let’s agree to make it harder to obtain simulated machine guns as well.
If we can ban a tool of mass murder without infringing on the gun rights of lawful citizens, we should join together and do so. Those who died in Las Vegas at the hands of a gunman using such a tool deserve no less.
Marc A. Thiessen writes a weekly column for The Post on foreign and domestic policy and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.