The Justice Department published a proposed regulation Friday that would effectively ban bump stocks, devices that can increase the firing speed of semiautomatic weapons, by classifying them as illegal machine guns under federal law.
The proposal — which would require existing devices to be surrendered or destroyed — reverses a position held by both the Obama and Trump administrations, which have held that the attachments don’t make firearms fully automatic.
In the new draft rule, officials contend bump stocks do make weapons fully automatic, allowing “a shooter of a semiautomatic firearm to initiate a continuous firing cycle with a single pull of the trigger.”
Bump-fire stocks and similar instruments allow semiautomatic rifles to fire more frequently by using pressure from the shooter’s body to push back against the gun’s recoil, quickly triggering another shot.
Officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — a division of the Justice Department known as ATF — previously found that, since pressure must be applied to the gun from behind in addition to pulling the trigger, the devices evade a ban on machine guns under the National Firearms Act and Gun Control Act.
In the new draft rule, however, officials write, “The bump-stock-type device functions as a self-acting and self-regulating force that channels the firearm’s recoil energy in a continuous back-and-forth cycle that allows the shooter to attain continuous firing after a single pull of the trigger so long as the trigger finger remains stationary on the device’s extension ledge (as designed). No further physical manipulation of the trigger by the shooter is required.”
The proposal is subject to a comment period of 90 days.
The device has brought intense attention since the mass shooting in Las Vegas last year, where a shooter used a bump stock device to kill or injure hundreds of people. In the aftermath of that shooting, even the National Rifle Association said lawmakers should review the devices to see if they “comply with federal law.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement, “After the senseless attack in Las Vegas, this proposed rule is a critical step in our effort to reduce the threat of gun violence that is in keeping with the Constitution and the laws passed by Congress.”
If approved, the rule would state that “current possessors of these devices would be required to surrender them, destroy them, or otherwise render them permanently inoperable upon the effective date of the rule.”
President Donald Trump has tried to pin past decisions to allow the devices on the Obama administration, but as BuzzFeed News reported Thursday, the Trump administration made the same call in an April 2017 letter to a bump stock manufacturer.
In a letter dated April 6, 2017 — posted in full here — Michael Curtis, chief of the Firearms Technology Industry Services Branch of the ATF, sent a letter to a bump stock manufacturer, saying its product was not prohibited.
“Since your device does not initiate an automatic firing cycle by a single function of the trigger, FTIB finds it is NOT a machinegun under the NFA, 26 U.S.C. § 5845(b) or the amended GCA, 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(23),” Curtis wrote.
Another set of ATF documents lists several instances, going back to 2003, in which officials determined bump stocks and similar devices were found to comply with federal law, including the determination on April 6, 2017.
The Justice Department’s regulation Friday acknowledges the 2017 decision, saying, “Between 2008 and 2017 ... ATF also issued classification decisions concluding that other bump-stock-type devices were not machineguns, including a device submitted by the manufacturer of the bump-stock-type devices used in the Las Vegas shooting. Those decisions did not include extensive legal analysis relating to the definition of ‘machinegun.’ Nonetheless, they indicated that semiautomatic firearms modified with these bump-stock-type devices did not fire 'automatically,' and were thus not 'machineguns,' because the devices did not rely on internal springs or similar mechanical parts to channel recoil energy. ATF has now determined that that conclusion does not reflect the best interpretation of the term ‘machinegun’ under the GCA and NFA.”
Gun control advocates have raised concerns that such a sharp reversal, after years of the ATF making a case for why the instruments cannot be banned, could make a ban difficult to defend in court.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who has long supported more gun control, told BuzzFeed News on Thursday, “Internal ATF documents that have been made public demonstrate yet again that the agency does not have the authority to ban bump stocks. The fact that ATF said as recently as April 2017 that it lacks the authority would give the gun lobby and its allies even more reason to file a lawsuit to block regulations banning bump stocks."
She added, "Congressional action is the only way to get this done and get these deadly devices off the streets now.”