GOP leaders look to avoid a fight with base over guns

GOP leaders look to avoid a fight with base over guns
© Getty Images

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are signaling that they want the Trump administration to write new regulations for a gun accessory that may have allowed the Las Vegas shooter to fire hundreds of rounds per minute.

While not explicitly ruling out legislation to outlaw bump stocks, the GOP leaders’ words and actions suggest they’d rather avoid a head-on fight with the National Rifle Association — which prefers a regulatory approach to passing a new law.

Sources close to GOP leaders say that if bump stocks circumvent the federal law banning the civilian sale and possession of machine guns, the matter should be left to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

“Machine guns are already illegal so if this device is found to turn semi-automatics into machine guns, then there isn’t a need for Congress to act,” said one Republican senator shortly after the National Rifle Association (NRA) issued a statement Thursday calling on the ATF to review the issue.

Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia Senate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Senators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits MORE (R-Texas) and Senate Republican Conference Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenators share their fascination with sharks at hearing Helsinki summit becomes new flashpoint for GOP anger Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash MORE (S.D.) joined Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerHistory argues for Democratic Senate gains Senate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Jacky Rosen hits Dean Heller over health care in first negative ad MORE (R-Nev.), the most vulnerable Republican incumbent, on a letter Friday urging the Trump administration to review the issue.

They framed the legal availability of bump stocks as a failure of the Obama administration in 2010 to properly interpret the Gun Control Act and National Firearms Act.

“Given the function and capability of a semi-automatic rifle that is modified by a bump stock, we respectfully request that you review the Obama Administration’s interpretation and issue your own interpretation,” they wrote in a letter to Thomas Brandon, the acting ATF director.

“Unfortunately, we are all now keenly aware of how this device operates and believe that this renewed review and determination will keep our citizens safe and ensure that federal law is enforced,” they wrote.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi: 'Thug' Putin not welcome in Congress GOP to White House: End summit mystery Sunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight MORE (R-Ky.) referred questions about a bump-stock ban to the ATF, the Department of Justice and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyKavanaugh returns questionnaire to Senate panel Sunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight Andrew Wheeler must reverse damage to American heartland MORE (R-Iowa) noted in a statement that “longstanding federal law essentially outlaws automatic firearms.”

He said the Judiciary Committee will receive a briefing from the ATF and may hold a hearing to determine how to best address “any loopholes in the law.”

In the House, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPelosi: 'Thug' Putin not welcome in Congress Interior fast tracks study of drilling's Arctic impact: report Dems unveil slate of measures to ratchet up pressure on Russia MORE’s (R-Wis.) spokeswoman AshLee Strong had no comment when asked if the Speaker's leadership team preferred to let the Trump administration close the loophole instead of tackle the problem with legislation.

But she pointed to comments Ryan made Thursday expressing support for new regulations on bump stocks.

“Fully automatic weapons have been outlawed for many, many years. This seems to be a way of going around that,” Ryan said at a tax-reform event in Chestertown, Md. “So obviously we need to look at how we can tighten up the compliance with this law so that fully-automatic weapons are banned.”

Republicans have a number of reasons for wanting to avoid a fight with the NRA.

After the GOP’s failure to pass ObamaCare repeal or move forward with President Trump’s promise for a wall on the southern border, the GOP grass roots base has been up in arms with congressional Republicans.

Moving a gun control bill will only further inflame the conservative base, which is already calling for primary challenges next year. And Republicans just lost one of their colleagues in Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeRoby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism Once a Trump critic, Ala. rep faces runoff with his support Crowley surprise tops huge night for left MORE (Ala.), who was defeated by conservative challenger Roy Moore in a primary.

Democrats say letting the ATF address bump stocks through regulation falls short of what’s needed in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, in which 58 people were killed. Bump stocks are sliding stocks that allow a shooter to use the recoil of a semi-automatic firearm to depress a trigger up to 10 or 12 times a second while the shooter squeezes the grip.

“Federal regulations won’t be able to fully close this loophole,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinPutin summit puts spotlight back on Trump's tax returns Sunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight Senate GOP breaks record on confirming Trump picks for key court MORE (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, who has introduced legislation that would make it illegal to sell or possess devices that accelerate the rate of fire of semi-automatic rifles.

She said that regulations on automatic fire could be circumvented by other technical modifications and that only “legislation would make crystal clear that Congress is banning all devices that allow a weapon to achieve an automatic rate of fire.”

But gun rights advocates worry that legislation could put Congress on a slippery slope toward passing other gun control measures.

They say that Feinstein’s bill could be used to later justify prohibitions against lighter trigger pulls, accelerated hammer drops and finished bolts.

An NRA source close to GOP leaders said that the ATF should handle the question of whether to implement additional regulations on bump stocks because the agency approved their use by civilians under President Obama in 2010.

“What has been a little bit odd is to see the press bury the fact that this is Obama’s ATF decision and given the Obama and the Democratic Party’s fascination with gun control, the idea that this was not a decision from the very top strikes me as unlikely,” said the source.

If legislation goes to the floor on bump stocks, the source said it will have to be accompanied by a bill backed by the NRA that would allow people to legally carry concealed weapons across state lines regardless of local laws.

There are some Republicans who want to vote on a bill to ban bump stocks.

“There is strong bipartisan consensus in the House for codifying the prohibition of these devices. My expectation is that leaders — on both sides of the aisle — will not stand in our way,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a top target of House Democrats in 2018, who is working on a bipartisan bill to ban bump stocks.

If Republican lawmakers vote for an amendment or stand-alone bill to ban bump stocks, however, they will see their pro-gun rights ratings suffer.

“We would certainly count it as part of our end-of-Congress grade so that means their grades would be knocked down. And when it comes to supporting candidates, we always support the ones with the best grade. So there certainly could be repercussions,” said Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), one of several Republicans siding with the GOP leadership, sent a letter to the administration Thursday urging the ATF to revoke its 2010 approval of bump stocks.

Kinzinger argued that whatever law Congress writes would inevitably become outdated with the arrival of new technologies. 

“They basically have to approve every new commercial device that comes up, and one of the problems we have is Congress is falling behind,” he said Thursday. “We create this law, but technology can outpace what a law says, and that’s in this case what happened. So I think if the ATF basically comes to the ruling that the spirit of the law matters, then that would be effective for future devices.”