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Congress still must ban bump stocks

January 2, 2019

Now that the Trump administration has moved to ban bump stocks, lawsuits are underway. Congress should cut them off by passing an overdue legislative ban.

Bump stocks give legal semiautomatic firearms the functionality of illegal machine guns. They used to be a niche product among gun enthusiasts. Then the shooter in the Las Vegas massacre used them to maximize his rate of fire and the carnage. He killed 58 people and wounded nearly 500. Suddenly, everyone knew about bump stocks.

Federal law bans fully automatic weapons but allows Americans to purchase semiautomatic ones. In practice, that means a shooter must pull the trigger each time he wants to fire a round with a legal gun. The speed of one’s finger limits how fast a weapon can fire.

Bump stocks are a workaround. They use the recoil of the weapon to “bump” it off the shooter’s shoulder and back against the trigger finger after every shot. Squeeze once and release leaden fury until you let go or run out of rounds.

When clever people find a way to circumvent the clear intent of the law, elected officials usually patch the law — unless it’s related to guns. Fear of the gun lobby among most Republicans and some Democrats prevents reform. That’s why the gun-show loophole remains, allowing criminals to dodge background checks before purchasing firearms, and why Congress didn’t act to close the bump-stock loophole last year.

So President Donald Trump took the lead with an administrative rule.

Gun rights zealots are apoplectic. Wisconsin Gun Owners, the state’s “no-compromise gun lobby,” declared, “The Trump administration and the ATF paved the way toward total confiscation of all firearms in America by issuing an executive fiat to ban bump stocks. Just like that, with the stroke of a pen, your gun rights were crushed.”

Restricting one device that converts legal weapons into illegal ones is a far cry from crushing gun rights, but nuance has never been a strong suit for gun rights absolutists.

The problem is that administrative rules aren’t as strong as laws, and this one could be vulnerable in court. Staunch gun advocates are right that the machine gun ban, as currently written in federal code, doesn’t explicitly forbid bump stocks. That’s because no one knew what a bump stock was when the law passed. They exist specifically to get around the law.

Rather than wait to see if the courts agree, Congress should update the law. Bump stocks violate the intent of the law. They also should violate the letter of it. With Trump, a Republican, on board and Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives, this could be a bipartisan win to set the tone going forward.

Closing a loophole to prevent the next mass shooter from firing far faster than he should won’t make lawmakers weak on gun rights. It would just make them strong on common sense.

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