President Trump appeared to take a tiny step toward the narrowest possible gun control measures on Tuesday, saying that he signed a memo directing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to propose a rule banning some devices, such as bump stocks, which he said can turn otherwise legal guns into machine guns. “I expect that these critical regulations will be finalized very soon,” he said.
The move was in response to the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which has sparked renewed calls from many for more restrictions on gun ownership in the US.
But the Justice Department said in December that it can’t ban bump stocks on its own, and an attempt to ban them in the Senate has gone nowhere. And even if such a rule were enacted, it’s unclear how effective it would be in preventing mass shootings — there’s no evidence so far that the Parkland shooter used a bump stock.
The gun used in the shooting was a Smith & Wesson M&P15 .223, a gas-powered semiautomatic weapon — “semiautomatic” meaning that one pull of the trigger discharged one round of ammunition. So any effort to ban or regulate the sale of bump stocks would not have changed the shooter’s ability to access the weapon he used or how he used it.
A bump stock ban might be easier said than done
Though older versions are technically legal to own, buy, and sell in many states, brand new “machine guns” — defined by law as a fully automatic weapon capable of firing more than one shot per trigger pull — have not been available for sale or purchase for civilian use in the United States since the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986.
But bump stocks, like those used by a gunman to kill 58 people and injure hundreds in Las Vegas in October, can modify a semiautomatic weapon into one with a far faster trigger pull, able to fire more shots.
In December, the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) began reviewing whether bump stocks are legal. “Possessing firearm parts that are used exclusively in converting a weapon into a machine gun is illegal, except for certain limited circumstances,” Sessions said in a press release regarding the review at the time. “Today we begin the process of determining whether or not bump stocks are covered by this prohibition.”
The National Rifle Association supported the review, with representatives saying in a statement, “The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”
But there’s a wrinkle in Trump’s direction: The ATF, which is part of the Department of Justice, isn’t sure that it can ban bump stocks on its own. A few weeks after the announcement of the review, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said that the acting director of ATF was unsure if the agency had the legal power to ban bump stocks in the first place, with regulation being perhaps the only available option unless Congress passed legislation. That could be because following the legal definition of a machine gun, bump stocks don’t actually turn guns into machine guns. But with the memo, Trump essentially told the Justice Department to go ahead anyway.