If We Want to Implement a Pointless Ban of Bump Stocks We’re Going to Need New Laws


President Donald Trump’s administration has announced a new ban for bump stocks.

These are simple mechanical devices which make it possible to fire semi-automatic firearms more rapidly than you would be able to using only your trigger finger. A device like that was used by the Las Vegas shooter in his deadly attack last year.

“The regulation gives gun owners until late March to turn in or destroy the devices,” the Associated Press reports. “After that, it will be illegal to possess them under the same federal laws that prohibit machine guns.”

I don’t know that bump stocks are all that important to gun culture. They’re a novelty, at best, but there are reasons to be concerned about the government exercising their power in this way. As the AP reports, the feds are using existing law regulating fully-automatic weapons as the basis for this move, but it’s not at all clear the law gives them that authority.

The National Firearms Act of 1934 states that a machinegun is “any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.”

Yet this is how Trump’s Department of Justice interpreted that statute to apply it to bump stocks:

Today, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and U.S. Attorney Trent Shores announced that the Department of Justice has amended the regulations of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), clarifying that bump stocks fall within the definition of “machinegun” under federal law, as such devices allow a shooter of a semiautomatic firearm to initiate a continuous firing cycle with a single pull of the trigger.

That’s not actually how bump stocks work. This video features a former Army Ranger demonstrating how the device works:

A bump stock can clearly increase rate of fire, but a trigger pull is still required for each shot. And, per existing federal law, that means bump stocks are not machine guns.

If the federal government wants to ban bump stocks, they need new law. The Trump administration, which is the executive branch of government, cannot write the law.

All of which is beside the point of whether or not we should ban bump stocks in the first place.

I don’t think we should, because while it might be good politics after one was used in the Las Vegas shooting, as a practical matter of public policy such a ban is likely to accomplish very little in terms of decreasing gun violence.

Bump stocks are a simple device. They’re easily made. Their sale and ownership isn’t tracked. It’s deeply unlikely that the federal government can enforce this ban in any meaningful way, and even if they did, trying to solve the problem of violence by banning the implements used by violent people is an exercise in futility.