Why gun experts don’t support banning – or buying – ‘bump stocks’

Twelve of the 23 guns found in the Las Vegas shooter’s hotel room were retrofitted with an add-on that allows a semiautomatic weapon to mimic the action of an automatic, according to the ATF. The buzz surrounding these add-ons follows a now-familiar pattern.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
A sign advertising a gun show is seen on the Las Vegas Strip in front of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino near the Route 91 music festival mass shooting in Las Vegas, on Oct. 3.

As Andrew “Mr. Wick” Wickerham helps his customers at the 2nd Amendment Gun Shop in Las Vegas on Tuesday, he mentions how he’s getting a little annoyed at this “new buzzword” circulating among gun owners.

“All of the sudden we’re getting all these calls about these bump-fire stocks,” says Mr. Wickerham, a combat veteran who served 10 years with the Marines. “It’s getting ridiculous – these people never even knew what a bump-fire stock was until they saw it on the news. It’s the new hype. All of the sudden, people are saying, ‘I got to get one of these before they’re not available anymore.’ ”

Also called a slide-fire stock, the add-on can make a legal semi-automatic assault-style rifle mimic a machine gun, experts say. The weapon’s natural recoil is harnessed to “bump” back and forth on a sliding stock attached to the gun’s trigger, which allows it to fire as fast as an automatic weapon that would otherwise violate federal law.

The current buzz surrounding these add-ons for assault-style rifles is following a now-familiar pattern: Whenever the country experiences a mass shooting, sales of weapons often spike, as many worry that lawmakers may tighten gun control laws.

When it comes to bump-fire stocks, however, Wickerman and other gun experts are just not impressed.

Make no mistake, Wickerham is adamantly opposed to any further federal or state regulations. Also the owner of 3 Degrees Tactical, which trains and certifies police officers, armed security guards, and others on the use of firearms, he’s one of Nevada’s leading trainers in the use of deadly force. In the past, he’s been a contractor for the US State Department, he says, helping to train those on maritime missions to combat Somali piracy, among other US government special operations.

“But I’ve always thought these bump stocks were just a novelty,” he says. “They’re not that good, and they’re hard as hell to control.”

Paul Valone, the president of Grassroots North Carolina, a nationally influential gun rights organization, agrees.

Bump stocks, says Mr. Valone, “are an amusement, because they don’t under normal circumstances turn an AR-15 or another rifle into a killing machine, because you can’t hit anything with it. Only when you are presented 400 yards away with a field of uninterrupted humanity would something like that even be effective.”

Which was the case, of course, when Stephen Paddock, authorities say, rapidly fired a hail of bullets onto a crowd of 22,000 concertgoers on Sunday, killing at least 59 and injuring more than 520 in one of the worst mass shootings in United States history.

Twelve of the 23 guns found in Paddock’s hotel room were retrofitted with such bump stocks, said Jill Schneider, special agent in charge with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms at a press conference Tuesday.

But if gun rights advocates such as Mr. Valone, Wickerham and others remain unenthusiastic about such add-on modifications, Sunday’s deadly shooting had a profound effect on others.

“I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life,” tweeted Caleb Keeter, lead guitarist of The Josh Abbott Band, which performed Sunday at the Route 91 Harvest Festival. “Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was,” he said, noting the band has members licensed to carry concealed weapons, and that there were firearms on the bus.

“They were useless,” he continued in the widely quoted post. “We couldn’t touch them for fear police might think we were part of the massacre and shoot us... Enough is enough...We need gun control RIGHT. NOW.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, too, said he was now “open-minded to anything that would shed light on what happened and how to fix it without giving people false hope that we’re one law change from fixing things like this.”

Allen Breed/AP/File
An employee of North Raleigh Guns demonstrates how a 'bump' stock works at the Raleigh, N.C., shop on Feb. 1, 2013. The gunman who unleashed hundreds of rounds of gunfire on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas on Oct. 2, 2017, attached what is called a 'bump-stock' to two of his weapons, in effect converting semiautomatic firearms into fully automatic ones.

‘I don't think it’s the same old story’

Some scholars see an opening in the long history of congressional inaction on the issue.

“It may be inaction at the federal level, but there’s a lot of activity at the state levels, both making laws more permissive and restrictive,” says Adam Winkler, author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” “So I don’t think it’s the same old story. There is definitely going to be efforts to restrict access to these devices, if not at the federal level, at the state level.”

“And the fact is, it may be easier to ban modifications that are not very popular among gun owners,” continues Dr. Winkler, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. “Unlike assault weapons, these bump-stocks are not popular at all, because they make guns highly inaccurate and shooters like to be accurate. The Las Vegas shooter didn’t care much about accuracy.”

Republican lawmakers on Tuesday said Congress would not be taking action on gun legislation after the massacre in Las Vegas. Their effort to ease access to gun silencers was put on hold, and they made clear that they would take no action on Democratic calls for expanded background checks and tighter restrictions on semi-automatic weapons.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R) of Louisiana, who was seriously wounded after a gunman opened fire on GOP lawmakers during a baseball practice this summer, told Fox News that both his experience and the Las Vegas shooting has only “fortified” his opposition to gun control legislation.

Like many Republicans, Congressman Scalise rejected discussions of new gun regulations “because first of all you’ve got to recognize that when there’s a tragedy like this, the first thing we should be thinking about is praying for the people who were injured and doing whatever we can to help them, to help law enforcement. We shouldn’t first be thinking of promoting our political agenda.”

Valone, an airline pilot who hosts a radio show called “Guns, Politics and Freedom” in Wilmington, N.C., says the issue of rapid-fire automatic weapons has in some ways been settled. 

The first attempt to regulate automatic weapons came in response to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a 1929 Chicago gangland killing where seven people were killed by four rivals, two of whom were using Thompson submachine guns.  

Instead of banning the weapons – which Congress did not feel it was enumerated to do – Washington taxed such weapons in 1934 to the tune of $200 and, four years later, instituted the first background checks for standard weapons. 

In 1986, Congress made it a crime to possess machine guns, with some exceptions. The US banned the purchase of semi-automatic assault-style rifles in 1994; that law sunsetted 10 years later. Today, the AR-15 – a classic assault-style rifle used by some mass killers – is referred to by many gun enthusiasts as “America’s rifle.”

Guns part of Nevada culture

Nevada is one of the least restrictive states for those possessing guns. And Wickerham, who was born and raised in Las Vegas, says it’s woven into the state’s culture. He still has Polaroid pictures of himself as a five-year-old, his father helping him hold a Colt Python, a 357 Magnum pistol.

Indeed, gun shops and gun ranges are woven throughout Las Vegas’s bright-blinking casinos.

The Strip Gun Club, just a few minutes' drive away from the scene of Sunday’s massacre, advertises, “You’ll forget all about the slots and tables the moment you pull the rifle handles on our double doors” and engage in “pulse-pounding missions.”

Battlefield Vegas, also a few blocks away from the scene, allows visitors to shoot their favorite guns from the popular video game, “Call of Duty.” The Range 702 bills itself as the “ultimate shooting experience.” Staff at five Las Vegas gun clubs said Tuesday they had “no comment” on Sunday's shooting, either because it was “too soon” or out of respect for the victims’ families.

Larry Pratt, emeritus director of Gun Owners of America in Springfield, Va., notes that the Las Vegas mass shooting “is a very unusual situation in many ways, because the bump-stock, this is the first time anybody has ever heard of it being used this way, so to say [banning the device] will solve our crime problems is a bit much.”

In his view, such a push would fit into what he sees as a familiar pattern, where gun control advocates ask for small concessions and then increase their demands – a slippery slope toward more regulations. “I’m not interested in the details about, ‘Oh, this is a particularly vulnerable point and we ought to address it’; no, what they are looking for is any way they can get momentum,” says Mr. Pratt.

“This whole thing with bump-fire stocks, I think it’s funny,” says Wickerham, because they are not a quality add-on. 

“But if this place turns into California [with its strict gun control laws],” he says, “I’m not going to complain; I’ll just leave.”

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