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Why the First Step to Re-Characterizing Mass Shootings Starts with Banning Bump Stocks

By: Abigail Kittredge

More than 15,000 Americans die each year from guns. Mass shootings have plagued communities in the U.S. for almost twenty years following the thirteen students killed at Columbine High School in 1999. Fifty-eight people were killed on October 1, 2017. Forty-nine more were killed on June 12, 2016. Thirty-two dead on April 16, 2007. Another twenty-seven on December 14, 2012. Twenty-five more and an unborn child killed on November 5, 2017. Gun regulation is a hotly contested political topic. Yet, mass shootings are no longer simply a domestic tragedy. Machine guns were banned by the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act except for use by the military and law enforcement. Bump stocks transform mass shootings from domestic tragedies into national security threats because they turn a legal semi-automatic gun into a weapon with a rate of fire closer to that of a fully-automatic weapon, or “machine gun”—a deadly weapon used for war. Congressmen and women need to put their own agendas and fears of re-election aside and pass legislation enabling the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to regulate not just bump stocks, but all devices which dramatically increase a semi-automatic weapon’s rate of fire.  

A machine gun is a fully-automatic firearm that, with a single pull of the trigger, rapidly shoots a cluster of rounds of ammunition. Purchasing an automatic weapon involves submitting fingerprints and photographs to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, going through an FBI criminal background check, and paying a $200 tax, among other requirements. The Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 says only automatic weapons manufactured and registered with the federal government before 1986 can be bought, owned and sold. Only certain types of Federal Firearms licensees may make them, and then only for purchase by qualified state and federal agencies. Despite this regulation on machine guns, thirty years after this Act was passed, the U.S. is facing some of the deadliest mass shootings in its history due to the manipulation of semi-automatic guns. This is due to the bump stock—a major loophole in the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act. According to a description provided in an Associated Press article,

[a bump stock] basically replaces the gun’s shoulder rest with a “support step” that covers the trigger opening. By holding the pistol grip with one hand and pushing forward on the barrel with the other, the shooter’s finger comes in contact with the trigger. The recoil causes the gun to buck back and forth, “bumping” the trigger. Technically, that means the finger is pulling the trigger for each round fired, keeping the weapon a legal semi-automatic.

Part of the reason these mass murderers can kill and injure so many people is due to the effect of bump stocks and similar devices. At least twelve of the semi-automatic weapons used to kill 58 people and injure almost 500 in Las Vegas in October utilized bump stocks.

Mass shootings, especially school shootings, need to become a national security priority. As Phillip Carter, of Slate Magazine, said, “Seventeen dead would have been a bad day in Iraq or Afghanistan at the height of our wars there.” Frances Townsend, who was homeland security adviser during President George W. Bush’s administration, also thinks it is time to prioritize and re-characterize school shootings. Townsend told CBS in reference to school shootings, “I mean, imagine, for a moment, if the shooter had been a Muslim, we’d have been having a different conversation. . . . And how wrong does that feel? This ought to be at the top of homeland security threats, because we have an obligation to protect our children.”

Thus, while the national security threat is clear, the first step to dealing with this national security issue is to ban not just bump stocks, but any device with the same effect of bump stocks so that fewer people can die in such a short period of time. If Congress simply bans bump stocks, people will without a doubt come up with an alternative device, with the same effect, to avoid violation of the law.

Determining who has the legal authority to regulate the effect of bump stocks is also a substantial issue. During the Obama Administration, the ATF had determined that it cannot regulate bump stocks under the regulatory power given to the agency by the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act, reasoning that bump stocks have “no automatically functioning mechanical parts and performs no automated mechanical functions when installed,” thus leaving them outside the purview of the ATF’s regulatory, and statutory power. Also, following the Las Vegas attacks, ATF officials indicated that any ban on bump stocks would require new legislation. However, if the ATF follows through on President Trump’s recent directive, this regulation will likely wind up in court, and the ATF will have to explain to judges’ why the new reading of the law is correct and the Obama Administration’s reading of federal law was wrong. Under the Chevron doctrine, courts often defer to an agency’s judgment when federal laws leave room for interpretation, so long as the agency’s interpretation is reasonable. Still, defending the agency’s change in interpretation would be a tough burden, because the Administration will have to convince the courts that its new interpretation is reasonable, and the previous interpretation was not.

The best and most legally efficient outcome would be for Congress to pass a new bill to ban bump stocks and any device with the effect of a bump stock. The obvious hurdle to this solution, of course, is congressmen and women’s fear of being voted out of office for supporting this gun regulation measure. Yet, without congressional movement, the U.S. national security crisis of mass shootings will continue and many more innocent lives will be lost. It is the legislature’s duty as representatives of U.S. citizens to represent the interests of their constituents and act as their voice. If Congress members value re-election over ensuring the country’s safety, then it is most certainly failing its duty to the people.

In sum, Congressional leaders need to take the first crucial step to protecting the nation from these horrific, but consistent, mass shootings against innocent civilians. The bump stock’s effect of turning a semi-automatic weapon into essentially a machine gun has cost the lives of hundreds of Americans. In the last decade, many more Americans have died from mass shootings in this country than they have from terrorist attacks. Mass shootings have become a substantial threat to national security—and should be given at least the same priority as terrorist attacks from government security agencies and Congressional representatives.


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