ATF chief advises law change for bump-stock ban

March 15, 2018 GMT

WASHINGTON — Connecticut Democratic lawmakers who favor a legislative ban on bump stock devices — which turn semi-automatic rifles into virtual machine guns — have won an important new ally: Acting ATF Director Thomas Brandon.

Under questioning this week by Sen. Richard Blumenthal before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Brandon said that passing a law to ban the device used in the deadly Oct. 1, 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting would be “the best route.”

But in the meantime, Brandon insisted, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and its parent, the Department of Justice, have proposed a rule banning bump stocks that is now undergoing review at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The distinction between an act of Congress and an administrative action designed to accomplish the same thing may seem like an ultimate Washington inside-baseball yawner.


But the difference could prove crucial to the future availability of bump stocks, two types of which were previously judged legal by ATF even though machine guns have been banned or severely restricted since 1934.

Bump stocks were a gun-enthusiast novelty until the Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, used one to spray fire onto a Las Vegas open-air concert audience — killing 58 and wounding over 500.

The 1934 National Firearms Act, passed in the wake of Prohibition-era mob activity, set the individual trigger-pull as the dividing line between legal rifles and illegal machine guns. One bullet per trigger-pull is legal; multiple bullets per trigger-pull is not.

Bump stock devices enable semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 to fire multiple rounds with machine-gun-like rapidity. But the bump stock harnesses the rifle’s natural recoil and the trigger technically is being pulled for each shot.

In the aftermath of Las Vegas, congressional Democrats including those in the Connecticut delegation called for a swift legislative ban on bump stocks.

They pointed to ATF’s own findings in two instances that particular varieties of bump stocks technically fell within the parameters of federal firearms law restricting machine guns — which can fire 800 rounds or more a minute.

But Republicans and gun-rights groups have shown little appetite for a legislative solution.

The National Rifle Association and the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation called on Washington to let ATF study how and why it approved the two devices before considering legislation.

President Trump endorsed this path, calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to essentially overturn ATF’s judgment.

“Don’t worry about bump stocks, we’re getting rid of it,” Trump told a bipartisan group of lawmakers last month, two weeks after a mass shooter killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. “You don’t have to complicate your bill by adding two paragraphs. I can do that myself, because I’m able to do it.”


But during the Senate Judiciary meeting on Wednesday, Blumenthal tried pinning down Brandon of the ATF on whether an administrative ban could be delayed, perhaps endlessly, by lengthy lawsuits.

“I’ve been told that by some attorneys, yes, sir,” Brandon replied.

“Wouldn’t it be simpler and more effective for legislation to ban bump stocks?” Blumenthal asked.

Brandon responded: “The optimum answer for public safety, as a career guy (for) 30 years, the law is clearly the best route. But we are doing everything within the executive branch that we can do … to enhance public safety and keep an open mind about bump stocks.”