Anyone in possession of a bump stock — the controversial gun accessory used to kill 59 people and wound more than 400 others in Las Vegas two years ago — could now be slapped with felony charges and face up to 10 years in prison or $250,000 in fines.
Bump stocks, which can be affixed to semi-automatic rifles to make them fire like machine guns, were relatively obscure until the 2017 shooting. The gunman had 12 of the devices in his hotel room when he opened fire on country music festival-goers from his hotel room window. At the time, bump stocks could be purchased online, bought at sporting goods stores like Dick’s, or even made at home.
As public scrutiny intensified against bump stocks, the Trump administration, at the behest of the president, formally banned the devices in December 2018. The policy gave bump stock owners about three months, until March 26, to either turn in their devices to a verified location, like a field office of the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), or destroy them on their own.
But the ban’s success will be difficult to chart for a number of reasons. First, unlike regular firearms which have serial numbers corresponding to their owners, there’s no way of knowing who has a bump stock — or several — in their arsenal. Plenty of online manuals also explain how to easily make a bump stock, DIY-style, including with a 3D printer. When the Trump administration announced the ban, the ATF estimated roughly half a million bump stocks were in circulation.
Finally, the ATF has no way to track how many bump stocks have been turned in, given that people can also turn them in to local police departments, instead of ATF field offices, or simply destroy the devices themselves.
“Bump stocks were gun manufacturers' attempt to allow people to effectively have a machine gun that they’ve been banned from purchasing since 1986,” said David Chipman, a retired ATF agent and senior policy adviser at Giffords, an organization advocating against gun violence. “And then we had the largest mass shooting in American history. We’ve seen what happens when it gets in the wrong hands.”
Bump stocks are already illegal in 11 states: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The majority of those laws were passed in 2018, after the Vegas shooting.
But the state of Washington recently sweetened the deal by allocating $150,000 toward a bump stock “buyback” scheme, the only one in the U.S. Anyone in possession of a bump stock in the state was invited to drop it off at seven designated locations across the state during March 17-18 and again March 24 -25.
By around noon local time on Monday, Washingtonians had exchanged 1,000 bump stocks for $150 apiece. That hit the allocated buyback budget set by legislators, according to State Patrol Trooper Chris Thorson, who’s in charge of public information in District Three, in the southeastern part of the state.
Thorson also said that some individuals had showed up with “homemade scam devices.” “They were made of plywood, with piping — rudimentarily made,” he added. “It was blatantly obvious they were trying to scam the system.”
The buyback scheme offers an incentive for bump stock owners to turn in their devices, which retail anywhere between $100 and $425. But other states haven’t implemented the same policy, and without a push, many bump stock owners likely won’t abide by the ban. One enterprising individual is even trying to sell his device online.
“These are officially banned,” one vendor posted on AmmoLand, which is an online marketplace for gun enthusiasts. “CAN SHIP. New never used… Will trade for: Cash, guns, ammo, ATV, UTV, Zero Turn Mower all welcome.”
“Once this goes into play tomorrow, this guy would be dealing what’s considered a machine gun, which is a serious 10-year felony,” Chipman said.
ATF public affairs chief April Langwell declined to say how many bump stocks had been turned into field offices so far. She explained that some people might turn in their bump stocks to an “alternative agency,” like their local police station, which ATF wouldn’t necessarily have any record of.
“That is why we are not discussing numbers of bump stocks turned in to ATF,” Langwell told VICE News. “It doesn’t paint an accurate picture of compliance with the ruling, due to the other means of abandonment or destruction. “
Not like other bans
The bump stock ban is different from previous federal gun-related bans, and Chipman said that could cause some confusion among gun-owners about what the ban really means for them.
The 1986 machine gun ban, for example, banned the sale of machine guns and machine gun parts but allowed machine gun owners to keep their guns on the condition that they register their devices separately with the ATF.
Similarly, the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004, allowed possession and sale of all semi-automatic rifles like AR-15s that were manufactured prior to the ban going into effect.
“I think the easiest comparison here is with our drug laws,” Chipman said. “Once something is prohibited and banned, like when methamphetamine or crack was criminalized, you’re holding something that’s illegal, and that’s risky.”
One day before the ban went into effect, many gun rights advocates were still hoping for last minute intervention from the courts — and made a last-ditch appeal to the Supreme Court. On Tuesday, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts rejected a request from gun advocates to slam the brakes on the ban.
At the moment, the only person exempt from the ban is Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council. Last Thursday, an appeals court in Denver gave Aposhian the right to keep his bump stock — for now — to give the court “adequate time to properly consider the motion.”
“I have a bump stock because I can,” Aposhian said. “I'm a firearms enthusiast. I have all sorts of accessories, and I don’t think I have to explain why. Why do people have water skis? And backyard fire pits?”
But for Aposhian, this fight isn’t about the bump stocks themselves. He and other gun rights activists challenging the ban argued that former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker overstepped his authority by redefining “bump stock” in order to make them subject to the federal ban on machine guns. In doing so, plaintiffs said the Trump administration leapfrogged over Congress in the process.
“We’re using bump stocks as a placeholder to address government overreach,” Aposhian said. “To address the constitutionality of the president’s order, when it should have been done by Congress and not by the executive.”
Had he not been granted a temporary stay, Aposhian said, he would have turned in his bump stocks to the ATF.
“I think that bump stock owners, as a smaller subset of firearm owners, will comply [with the ban],” Aposhian said. “I don’t think they’re going to stand and die on their bump stocks, so to speak. I’m pretty indicative of the rest of bump stock owners.”
Other gun rights advocates seem to be less fussed. “Bump stocks are a meme anyway,” wrote one user on Reddit on Tuesday. “It’s like one of those crappy infomercial products you buy at night when you took too much Ambien. I’m all for gun rights and I get the slippery slope argument, but some of the stuff they go hard to protect gets silly.”
Cover image: In this Oct. 4, 2017 file photo, a shooting instructor demonstrates the grip on an AR-15 rifle fitted with a "bump stock" at a gun club in North Carolina. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed, File)