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Substance Or Symbolism: The Wave Of State Bump Stock Bans In 2018

Bump stocks harness a gun’s recoil to speed up the rate of fire. Ten states banned the plastic attachments in the wake of a 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas.
Bump stocks harness a gun’s recoil to speed up the rate of fire. Ten states banned the plastic attachments in the wake of a 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas.

The Trump Administration says it will soon place a federal ban on bump stocks, the gun attachments that allow semi-automatic rifles to fire faster. Ten states banned the plastic device after it was used by a gunman in Las Vegas to shoot and kill 58 people in 2017.

Without any enhancement, semi-automatic rifles fire one bullet per trigger pull. Bump stocks harness the gun’s recoil to speed up the rate of fire, allowing the gun to pump out bullets faster.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), bump stocks “turn semi-automatic guns into illegal machine guns.” Since 2010, the DOJ says, up to 520,000 bump stocks have been purchased in the U.S.

Whether the bans help to decrease gun violence has yet to be seen. But given that they’re now in place in more than one-fifth of the country, bump stock bans represent a new wave of gun safety regulation.

Bump Stocks In 2018

While bump stocks have been illegal in California since 1990, Massachusetts became the first state to ban the device after the Las Vegas shooting. New Jersey, Washington, Florida, Vermont, Maryland, Hawaii, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island all followed. In New Mexico and Wyoming proposed bans failed.

Connecticut’s bump stock ban, Public Act 18-29, went into effect Oct. 1, 2018.

When the law was introduced in March 2018, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League (CCDL), a guns rights group, opposed the legislation and showed up to public hearings that month addressing PA 18-29 and other gun-related bills with written and verbal statements.

Jeremy Stein, president of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, helped write the law along with Democratic and Republican members of the legislature. His first day on the job was the morning after the 2017 Las Vegas shooting.

As a registered lobbyist in Connecticut, Stein says part of his job includes educating not just the public but legislators as well, many of whom didn’t know about the plastic accessory until after the Las Vegas shooting.

“We legislate things all the time as a society to say this is wrong,” Stein said. “This is not acceptable, and I think in this case, this is one of those areas where we were saying there was no legitimate purpose for a bump stock.”

“It’s not used for hunting. It’s not used for target practice. It’s not used for self-defense. It’s not used for home defense. We don’t need them on the other side. It was responsible for killing 58 people — let’s not have these.”

Stein recognizes that other states may not have prioritized passing their own bans because they have “bigger fish to fry,” like permit-to-purchase and background check laws that already exist in Connecticut.

“While the bump stock [ban] itself may not solve all of the gun violence problems,I think it is symbolic of a way that Democrats and Republicans alike can work together to pass legislation,” Stein said, “and that gun owners and non-gun owners and people that are in the middle can work together to pass safety laws.”

The National Rifle Association has said they’re withholding judgment on a federal ban until the details of the law are released.

Connecticut’s law classifies bump stocks, along with similar devices like binary triggers and trigger cranks, as “rate of fire enhancements” because of their ability to cause more than one round to fire per trigger pull.

According to Public Act 18-29, anyone caught possessing, using, selling, manufacturing or purchasing one of these accessories could be charged with a felony or misdemeanor.

Where Do All The Bump Stocks Go?

Rob Pizzi sits in the training room of his gun shop, Central Connecticut Arms. He’s never sold bump stocks.

Ryan Lindsay / Connecticut Public Radio

Now that bump stocks are illegal in Connecticut, owners are expected to turn them in to the police or to licensed gun shops, also known as Federal Firearm Licensees (FFLs).

But state officials in Connecticut don’t know how many bump stocks are in the state,nor do they have a central database that tracks how many have been surrendered or confiscated.

“We don’t have a list or a certification or registration of understanding who has them,” said Sergeant Alex Giannone, firearms supervisor with the Connecticut State Police. “So it’s only upon us finding out that somebody has it that we could take the necessary and appropriate action.”

As the owner of a Federal Firearm License, Rob Pizzi received a notice from the state regarding PA 18-29, which is standard procedure when the state passes any new legislative changes or updates that could affect his business, Central Connecticut Arms.

There have been reports that the Department of Justice has issued a memo to law enforcement agencies and FFLs regarding a federal ban. Pizzi says he hasn’t received anything yet.

In the two months since the ban went into effect, the Connecticut State Police say only one bump stock was turned in.

Increased Notoriety, But Still Just A ‘Novelty’

A customer who recently moved from Massachusetts speaks with a clerk at Central Connecticut Arms about Connecticut state gun regulations.

Ryan Lindsay / Connecticut Public Radio

“I don’t see a tremendous outcry from the gun-owning community over this because 99.999 percent of people don’t own a bump stock,” said CCDL President Scott Wilson. “Most have never even heard of a bump stock up until what happened in Las Vegas.”

Wilson has never owned a bump stock and neither has Pizzi, an army veteran.

“They’re very hard to use,” Pizzi said. “You have to have a lot of pressure on them against your body to make them work.”

After the Vegas shooting, some people called Pizzi’s shop with an interest in buying bump stocks but they’re not something Central Connecticut Arms has ever stocked.

“They’re not really anything that enhances the firearm at all. I kind of liken it to spinners on mag wheels, they’re all show, [but] they don’t really do much,” Pizzi said. “They’re not accurate. It’s hard to fire with them. You can’t you know, really fire rapidly with them. It’s a novelty.”

A Ban Doesn’t Bring An End To Bump Fire

CCDL President Scott Wilson says the ban is more of a “feel good piece of legislation” than something that will actually make Connecticut safer.

“I think really that the legislation was poorly thought out,” Wilson said. “I think it focused more on a false sense of security that somehow if they ban bump stocks people are inherently going to be safer.”

Wilson points out that bump fire can still be achieved without using a bump stock. There are videos on YouTube of how to bump fire using belt loops, rubber bands and even fast fingers.

“It’s just an accessory that can attach to a gun, but in and of itself, it’s not a weapon of any kind,” Wilson said. “So they’ve banned an object that is not even a firearm and they’ve offered no means of compensation for anyone.”

Bump stocks retail for more than $150 online. While states like Washington and Delaware offer buyback programs to incentivize people to surrender their bump stocks, Connecticut doesn’t have a buyback program or any plans to offer one.

Following the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump began calling on the Department of Justice to ban bump stocks and similar gun enhancements, though Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, didn’t use the device.

The DOJ anticipates litigation once the federal ban is officially enacted. In March, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives published its proposed rule, contending that bump fire stocks and bump stock-type devices are “machine guns as defined by the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968.”

The existing state bans don’t classify bump stocks as machine guns, but instead focus on the accessory’s ability to enhance a semi-automatic firearm’s rate of fire.

The new federal legislation would require bump stock owners to surrender or destroy their devices within 90 days of taking effect.

Michael Cargill, owner of Central Texas Gun Works in Austin, Texas sells bump stocks from Slide Fire, the online company that shut down its shop in June. He began purchasing the accessories from Slide Fire in 2017 and says he opposes a federal ban.

“If the federal government decides to ban bump stocks, we’re not going to comply,” Cargill said. “Any time your government tells you that they’re going to ban something you own and either confiscate it or make you turn it in, that is theft and we’re going to sue.”

Some advocates for gun control, however, see a bump stock ban as one of few gun regulations the federal government is willing to implement.

“This law won’t make a huge difference in and of itself, but it’s important to plug all of the loopholes that allow criminals to wreak havoc with firearms,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA. “We need to do everything we can that’s consistent with the Second Amendment to reduce gun violence.”

In October 2018, on the first anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting, Trump stated in a press conference that his administration is “in the final couple of weeks” of “knocking out bump stocks,” but he did not provide an actual date for enactment of the legislation.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

Copyright 2020 Guns and America. To see more, visit Guns and America.

Ryan Lindsay