According to records obtained by 9NEWS, the Obama administration’s ATF turned down a request to use its regulatory powers to ban so-called “bump stocks,” the aftermarket device used by the Las Vegas shooter to rain down gunfire on a crowd at rates similar to automatic weapons.
The revelation came to light from a 2013 exchange of letters between the ATF and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colorado) in which the congressman asked the agency to crack down on the devices.
In light of his past push to ban them, Perlmutter was at a loss for words when asked how he felt upon learning that the Vegas shooter had a dozen of these bump stock devices.
“There’s a lot of ‘what-ifs.’ This guy had these conversions and he killed a lot of people,” Perlmutter told 9NEWS on Thursday.
In the aftermath, there appears to be a willingness in both major political parties to consider a ban on bump stocks.
But few people knew that the Obama administration considered this very issue four years ago and issued a legal interpretation declaring that the devices could legally continue to be sold.
ARE THEY MACHINE GUNS?
“They’ve already been banned. They’re machine guns. They operate exactly like a machine gun,” Perlmutter told 9NEWS about bump stocks.
But in actuality-- that’s not how the Obama administration’s ATF, headed by an interim director during the 2013 exchange with Perlmutter, viewed the issue.
Bump stocks function by using the weapon’s own recoil to force the shooter’s finger back into the trigger at a faster-than-natural rate, essentially using the human hand to create a rate of fire comparable to machine guns.
And that’s been the sticking point. Perlmutter argued in his 2013 letter that the practical result was the same.
“I believe weapons featuring Slide Fire Stocks or similar permanent accessories employing bump fire mechanics transform an otherwise legal firearm into a weapon the NFA (National Firearms Act) intended to prohibit,” Perlmutter wrote in a March 2013 letter to the acting ATF director.
Perlmutter’s letter argued that the makers of bump stocks were merely skirting the law by selling them as a cheap alternative to buying a legal machine gun—and that the modifications could be banned under the existing law against machine guns.
The ATF rejected that argument, writing in a reply that it couldn’t ban bump stocks without action from Congress because the bump stocks “may only be classified as firearms components” and not automatic weapons.
“ATF does not have the authority to restrict their lawful possession, use, or transfer.”
Perlmutter disagrees to this day with the 2013 reply he got and signed a new letter Thursday asking the Trump administration to reconsider.
HOW OBAMA’S ATF APPROVED BUMP STOCKS IN 2010
Federal law bans citizens from owning machine guns, with an exception for automatic weapons manufactured before 1986.
Those weapons must be registered with the federal government, require extra screening to transfer to a new owner, and are generally both rare and expensive.
The maker of a the most widely-sold bump stock (called the “Slide Fire”) obtained a letter from the ATF blessing the product as a legal in 2010, ruling that “the ‘bump-stock’ is a firearm part and is not regulated as a firearm under Gun Control Act or National Firearms Act.”
The 2010 ATF letter also notes that the manufacturer pitched the device as a way to help disabled people “whose hands have limited mobility” perform a bump-fire technique on the AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle.
Rather than aiming for disabled customers, the company’s current marketing materials take a different approach. One sales video makes no mention of disability, but features the product as a high-tech manifestation of the founding fathers’ vision of liberty and “every man’s birthright.”
NBC News located an interview with that device’s creator, Air Force veteran Jeremiah Cottle, in which he says he thought of the device as an alternative to machine guns because they are too expensive.
SOME REPUBLICANS OPEN TO A BAN, CAUSING A CONSERVATIVE DEBATE
Republicans, who resisted calls for new gun controls after a string of mass shootings including Aurora and Newtown, are expressing openness to the idea of banning bump stocks in the wake of the Vegas shooting.
Fifty eight people died at a country concert in a hail of gunfire shot at the rate of a machine gun and investigators say the killer had 12 bump fire devices to help him make it happen.
"Fully automatic weapons have been banned for a long time," House Speaker Paul Ryan said to MSNBC. "Apparently, this allows you to take a semiautomatic and turn it into a fully automatic. So clearly that’s something we need to look into."
He’s one of several Republicans to express support for the idea that the devices should be against the law.
Although the National Rifle Association expressed support for a potential ban on bump stocks, other gun groups expressed outrage at Republicans engaging in this debate.
The hard-line National Association for Gun Rights, headed by Colorado conservative activist Dudley Brown posted on social media that “weak-kneed Republicans are now joining Hillary Clinton and Michael Bloomberg in demanding more gun control.”
The Obama-era ATF ruling on bump stocks could provide conservatives legal cover to support a ban today.
Poynter, a prominent journalism institute, pointed out that conservative media outlets, including Breitbart (a platform for the so-called “alt-right”) are highlighting bump stocks as an Obama administration failure.
The NRA provided still more political cover, issuing a statement Thursday saying “the NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”
In the same statement, the NRA pushed back on the push for other gun controls as a response to “the criminal act of a madman.”
“Despite what the NRA is now saying, banning an accessory is not pro-gun and won’t solve anything,” Brown told 9NEWS.
The House plans to begin work on a bill addressing bump stocks as soon as next week.