Since Stephen Paddock murdered 58 people and injured about 500 others in Las Vegas on Sunday, America has been getting a crash course in an obscure piece of firearm technology called the "bump stock." Now even some Republicans in Congress are openly wondering why it's legal, raising the prospect that the worst mass shooting in US history might actually grease the wheels for gun control.
Bump stocks use the recoil of semiautomatic rifles to replicate the effect of an automatic weapon, letting people hold down the trigger to fire multiple rounds rather than squeezing the trigger for each shot. They're allowed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives because they don't technically make guns fully automatic, but after a dozen of the devices were found on guns Paddock had in his hotel room, lawmakers are pondering changing that. California Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill banning them on Wednesday, and unlike most Democratic gun control proposals, it may earn bipartisan support. "There has to be a way to be able to stop this," Nevada senator Dean Heller said. Joe Barton, a Texas congressman, told Vox he'd "look at" a bump stock ban. John Cornyn, the number-two Republican in the Senate, has been voicing concern over the devices. Even the NRA has endorsed the feds conducting a "review" of the technology.
"They're horrible. There's no question those things should be illegal," said Matt Bennett, a gun control advocate at the centrist think tank Third Way.
But how much would a bump stock ban affect America's broader gun violence? "Virtually not at all" Bennett told me, later adding, "I don't know that bump stocks have ever been used in a gun crime before."
That could be because these are impractical devices—though they enhance the rate of fire, they make it harder to aim. A gun rights advocate told the Christian Science Monitor that bump stocks were an "amusement" and that "you can't hit anything with it. Only when you are presented 400 yards away with a field of uninterrupted humanity would something like that even be effective." (It's not yet certain that the Vegas shooter actually used the guns that were outfitted with bump stocks, though it does seem likely given audio recordings of his spree.)
Chelsea Parsons, a gun and crime policy expert at the liberal Center for American Progress, agrees with Bennett. "A bump stock ban is not at all responsive to the the more common problem of gun violence," she said.
Which is to say the one gun-control measure Congress might pass after America's latest historically awful shooting isn't very promising.
After all, the Vegas shooting—apparently meticulously planned to inflict massive pain and death on a crowd of random bystanders—is an "outlier," as Parsons put it. Most gun violence comes in more mundane forms: domestic abuse incidents that turn tragically to homicides, arguments between friends or strangers that get out of hand when firearms are introduced, or suicides—which make up the majority of gun deaths. That violence generally involves handguns, rather than rifles. A bump stock ban wouldn't affect any of that.
Ari Freilich, an attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, called a bump stock ban "an important step to ensuring we can address the legality of mass carnage event. Still, he cautioned, "Mass shootings are horrific, we need to address them, but they're also only a small sliver of gun violence." Also worth remembering: Most mass shootings don't involve bump stocks. A prohibition on bump stocks would be a real step, Freilich said, but there are many other moves that would reduce the ability of shooters to kill large numbers of people, such as restricting access to military-style weaponry and high-capacity magazines, and requiring gun stores to report more mass purchases.
All three experts I spoke to agreed on the measures needed to actually reduce the number of Americans killed by firearms, whether in mass shootings or otherwise. At the top of the list is requiring all gun purchasers to go through background checks—a long-sought goal of gun-control advocates that has proved elusive even after such horrific tragedies as the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 20 children in 2012. The federal government could also take new measures to crack down on interstate gun trafficking, which allows weapons to flow into big cities with strict gun laws, and work harder to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.
Freilich said that based on his own conversations with lawmakers, there was "bipartisan consensus" around addressing bump stocks. But Bennett was less optimistic even about this modest measure, worrying a bump stock ban could wind up being attached to a piece of pro-gun legislation, like a bill that would create a national concealed-carry permit or make it easier to buy silencers. And even if Congress does pass a standalone bump stock ban into law, it wouldn't represent any kind of sea change in the willingness of America's political class to take on out-of-control gun violence.
"The odds of Congress taking any serious and meaningful action are virtually zero," said Bennett.
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