Congressional Republicans are backing away from legislation banning “bump stocks” - devices used by Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock that effectively turn semiautomatic 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 semiautomatic 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 semiautomatic 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 re-imposition 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. Conservatives should not be setting a precedent for unilateral executive restrictions on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens. Moreover, Republicans are supposed to be working to roll back the regulatory state. Congress should be insisting that regulators act strictly within the laws Congress passes, not urging them to adopt expansive interpretations of laws that Congress never intended.
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. Bump stocks are designed to circumvent a ban on automatic weapons that Republicans and the National Rifle Association already are on record supporting and that was signed by President Ronald Reagan. Closing this loophole does not newly restrict gun rights; it simply comports with the intent of existing firearms laws.
Congress pulls these kinds of tricks all the time. Lawmakers find a way to increase the national debt limit while claiming they oppose it. Instead of killing Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, they vote on a meaningless “resolution of disapproval” - which allows congressional critics to claim they voted against the agreement knowing full well Obama would veto it and the deal would go into effect. These gimmicks are cowardly and an insult to the American people.
Now, rather than doing their jobs, congressional Republicans are hiding behind ATF - protecting their political reputations while putting the Second Amendment at greater risk. They should show more respect for the voters, the Constitution and the victims who died in Las Vegas. This is a chance for bipartisan action. Republicans should take it.
Thiessen is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and former chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush.