Congressional Republicans are backing away from legislation banning “bump stocks” – devices used by Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock that effectively turn semi-automatic rifles into machine guns – and are turning to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to ban them by executive action instead.
“We think the regulatory fix is the smartest, quickest fix, and then, frankly, we’d like to know how it happened in the first place,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said in a news conference last week.
Ryan is wrong. Empowering ATF to ban firearms devices without explicit authorization from Congress is a far greater threat to the Second Amendment than any legislation Congress could pass.
In 2010, under President Barack Obama, ATF ruled that “bump-fire” stocks were legal under current federal law, declaring in a letter to manufacturer Slide Fire: “We find that the ‘bump-stock’ is a firearm part and is not regulated as a firearm under the Gun Control Act or the National Firearms Act.” This was a proper, limited reading of our gun laws.
Now Republicans want ATF to simply overturn its 2010 determination that bump stocks are legal – effectively banning them by executive fiat. Do conservatives really want to set the precedent that ATF can ban firearms or firearm devices without explicit authorization from Congress? Imagine what Hillary Clinton would have done with that power as president.
If ATF takes such action, it could set a precedent for other executive action on guns without explicit congressional authorization. A future Democratic president could use this precedent to have ATF reclassify all semi-automatic weapons as machine guns. They would argue, correctly, that you don’t actually need a bump-fire stock to produce a bump-fire effect. It can be accomplished with rubber bands or a belt loop, or even without any external device by a skilled marksman.
So, gun-control advocates could argue, all semi-automatic weapons are really in fact automatic guns – and thus banned under the 1986 Firearms Owners’ Protection Act. They could use an ATF ruling banning bump stocks as precedent for a back-door reimposition of the so-called assault weapons ban.
For the party that railed against Obama’s unlawful executive actions on immigration and other issues to now urge President Donald Trump to take unlawful executive actions on guns that even Obama refused to take is stunning.
The better option is to pass limited, carefully crafted legislation to ban these devices. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and 38 Senate Democrats have introduced the Automatic Gunfire Prevention Act that would “ban the sale, transfer, importation, manufacture or possession of bump stocks, trigger cranks and similar accessories that accelerate a semi-automatic rifle’s rate of fire.” According to Feinstein, the bill “makes clear that its intent is to target only those accessories that increase a semi-automatic rifle’s rate of fire.”
Why are Republicans so reluctant to pass such legislation? Some were understandably spooked when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declared that she hoped Feinstein’s bump-stock legislation would become a “slippery slope” to more expansive gun-control measures. But Republicans need to understand that the real slippery slope on guns lies in empowering ATF to unilaterally impose gun control by executive fiat, not from passing carefully crafted legislation.
Republicans control the House, the Senate and the White House. It is completely in their power to ensure that the Feinstein bill is properly limited in scope. They can even introduce bump-stock legislation of their own.
The other reason congressional Republicans are reluctant to pass legislation is that they are trying to avoid accountability. They fear being on record supporting any new “gun control” legislation. But a bump-stock ban is not a new gun-control measure; it simply closes a loophole in existing legislation.
Marc A. Thiessen is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush.
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