Federal regulators launched a review of federal law to determine if certain bump stock devices fall within the definition of “machine gun,” according to Tuesday’s release by the Justice Department.
“Possessing firearm parts that are used exclusively in converting a weapon into a machine gun is illegal, except for certain limited circumstances,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. “Today we begin the process of determining whether or not bump stocks are covered by this prohibition.”
Sessions explained the Justice Department will follow the regulatory process required by law, which includes opening a public commenting period. A draft of proposed changes filed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will soon be open for public comment.
Bump stocks — devices designed to allow an AR-style rifle to mimic the performance of a machine gun — became the subject of debate after a gunman used the device to kill 58 people and injured some 500 others by shooting out of a hotel window at a concert off the Las Vegas strip on Oct. 1. Authorities investigating the incident said the gunman was able to shoot 1,100 rounds in 10 minutes using the device.
Although current federal law strictly regulates the possession and transfer of machine guns, it does not prohibit bump stocks. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that the device circumvents the law and filed bills to change it, but federal efforts seemed to fizzle after a month and more mass shootings. Yet, several areas of the country have either passed or advanced bills to prohibit bump stocks.
The Justice Department’s effort mirrors comments by the National Rifle Association, which criticized the ATF for not classifying the device as a machine gun and suggested the agency should take another crack at reviewing it rather than Congress passing legislation. Former ATF agents and representatives said they couldn’t classify the device as a prohibited item because the law did not permit them to.
The ATF classified the bump stock devices as accessories rather than a machine gun device in 2010, after manufacturer Slide Fire voluntarily submitted the product for review. Officials said they cleared the device because it “performs no automatic mechanical function when installed” and the shooter must still apply “constant” forward and rearward pressure to the trigger. Years before, other companies with similar devices had been denied due to different construction.
Gun control advocates say the marching orders for federal regulators to take a second look at the devices is cause for concern and warn that a legislative fix could be more appropriate, especially when it comes to a ban.
“Congress should take proper action to cement into law the ability to restrict bump stocks and stop them from being transferred to the wrong hands,” said David Chapman, a former ATF agent now an adviser with Giffords. “As part of any legislation, Congress must also give the ATF clear authority to restrict these devices.”
Updated from the original with comment from Giffords.