October 13, 2017 — In the aftermath of the horrific attack in Las Vegas, the outcry is, of course, for someone to DO SOMETHING. Something that will prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again. Something that will keep everyone safe. Something that will make everyone feel better.
Most of the clamor, predictably, is unrealistic and—even more predictably—unconstitutional. One of the more common themes is the call for a ban on the so-called “bump fire stocks” that almost no one in the country had heard of a month ago but are now an existential threat to our very society. In the emotional rush to do something—anything—to make people feel better, politicians, pundits, stand-up comedians, and your Aunt Betty on Facebook are pointing out that the bump stock loophole is one of those common sense gun control items that we should all be able to agree on. And if you don’t agree, you not only lack common sense but probably don’t even care that those country music fans were killed.
The NRA, always under fire from all sides, issued a statement meant to back away from the topic, claiming that the BATFE should review bump fire stocks and decide if they are legal for shooters to own and use. They said “the NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations” and that they would not necessarily oppose legislation banning the devices.
This position has set off a firestorm of controversy among gun owners. Many are claiming that this is tantamount to unconditional surrender on the NRA’s part, caving in to the anti-gun crowd and compromising on an issue that could easily become a slippery slope. Indeed, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) anticipates that’s exactly what a ban would be. “They’re going to say, ‘You give them bump stocks, it’s going to be a slippery slope.’ I certainly hope so,” she told a reporter at a news conference.
However, the NRA’s position is not the capitulation that critics claim it is.
First of all, everyone recognizes that this is an emotionally-charged moment. Public awareness of the issue and active interest in news and developments about the case are as high as they will ever be. Those arguing for more gun control are often not terribly rational or well-informed, and right now they are even less so than normal. They are circling like sharks who smell blood in the water and the last thing the NRA wants to do is let the feeding frenzy begin. Stepping back and taking a position of not taking a position—at least for now—is a bit of tactical maneuvering, not an all-out retreat.
Secondly, the NRA recognizes that very few serious shooters see these bump fire stocks as anything more than novelties or toys. Sure, they might be a fun way to blow through a case of ammo with some friends, but they are not a significant topic of discussion when it comes to gun rights. The Vegas shooter possibly benefited from them because he was operating from an elevated position overlooking a packed crowd where inaccurate fire was not as detrimental as it normally would be. But bump fire stocks are less accurate than actual automatic fire, and even that is generally far less accurate than aimed shooting. It’s debatable how much of a difference the bump fire stocks made to this particular crime, though the shooter’s detailed preparations lead me to believe that he at least thought they’d help him. In most circumstances, however, they are going to be a detriment. The NRA may decide to die defending a hill, but bump fire stocks are not the hill that they’re going to choose.
Finally, by suggesting that this issue go back to the BATFE, the NRA is hoping to keep it out of the hands of politicians. We’ve already heard what Nancy Pelosi thinks, and she’s not the only one. Politicians are easily swayed by the emotions of their constituents. Though perhaps only marginally less political than Congress, the BATFE is more insulated from the roller coaster of public opinion and they are—ostensibly—more easily kept in check if they try to overstep their authority. Congress creates its own authority and the damage they can wreak is far more difficult to undo. Also, certainly, in the minds of the NRA leadership is the fact that the BATFE under President Obama has already decided that the devices are legal. If they reverse course on that now, not only will they contradict their earlier determination and look like they, not the NRA, are responsible for bump fire stocks being available in the first place, they will leave the gun-grabbing Left unable to point fingers at President Trump or the Republican-controlled Congress.
And remember, the NRA didn’t really say it wouldn’t oppose a legislative ban on bump fire stocks. They said they would not oppose regulations on devices that make semi-automatic rifles function like fully-automatic weapons. That still leaves some wiggle room about the definition of “function like fully-automatic.”
Should gun owners be troubled by the push to ban bump fire stocks? Yes, whether they use them or not. Every regulation controlling firearms and their use needs to be looked at very carefully to make sure that it isn’t an unconstitutional infringement on our civil rights. But the NRA’s decision to punt this issue to the BATFE for now is not the treacherous betrayal that many are making it out to be.
The battle for our right to keep and bear arms is a never-ending war. We can’t lose sight of that when we choose the time and place of our battles.