When the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) asked for comments about bump stocks — the device used by a Las Vegas gunman to massacre nearly 60 people at a concert last fall — the overwhelming response was to oppose any new rules on their sale or use.
The agency has received more than 36,000 comments on the issue since asking for responses in December. The comment period ended late last month.
Though ATF has not proposed any specific regulations for bump stocks, most of the responses deal with whether the products should be regulated, according to an analysis from The Trace, a non-profit publication that covers gun-related issues, including topics such as gun violence.
The analysis from The Trace found that only 13 percent of the 32,000 comments it looked at supported regulating the devices.
“If you actually look at the request ATF put out — and the questions they asked — this was structured toward the industry,” said David Chipman, a senior policy adviser at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and retired ATF agent.
Since bump stocks are not regulated, he says, the government doesn’t even have basic information about how they’re made, how they’re used or the companies that manufacture them.
“We all know that there is going to be another thing that happens. If they propose a rule, we’re going to have another opportunity to comment on the rule they propose,” he said.
The “notice of proposed rulemaking” issued by ATF “is the initial step in a regulatory process to interpret the definition of machine gun to clarify whether certain bump stock devices fall within that definition,” the agency said in a Federal Register post.
Questions to the public included how bump stocks are advertised, how many retailers sell, how much they cost, the most common way they are purchased and what kind of economic impact classifying bump stocks as a “machine gun” would have.
In 2010, ATF declared that bump stocks are not subject to regulation, but the deadly shooting on an open-air concert from a Las Vegas hotel room on Oct. 1 that killed 58 people and injured hundreds more spurred calls for action.
Public polling, from Quinnipiac University and an Ipsos-NPR study, suggests that upwards of 70 percent of Americans support a ban on the bump stock devices, which can essentially make a semi-automatic weapon simulate the rapid fire of an automatic weapon.
Law enforcement groups, including ATF Association, which represents current and former employees, have pushed for regulations on the devices.
“The results of our analysis showcase a paradox of the gun debate. While widespread public support exists for many gun regulations and policies — from bump stocks to background checks — pro-gun advocates are significantly more active than their counterparts when it comes to engaging politicians and government agencies,” The Trace report said.
When lawmakers in both parties began to express support for legislation to ban bump stocks after the Las Vegas attack, the National Rifle Association (NRA) urged the federal government to review how bump stocks are regulated. The NRA’s call effectively halted the momentum in Congress to pass a bump-stock law.
“In the aftermath of the evil and senseless attack in Las Vegas, the American people are looking for answers as to how future tragedies can be prevented. Unfortunately, the first response from some politicians has been to call for more gun control. Banning guns from law-abiding Americans based on the criminal act of a madman will do nothing to prevent future attacks,” the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox said in a joint statement last year.
The group called on ATF “to immediately review whether these devices comply with federal law. The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment about the analysis of the comments to ATF.
Eighty-five percent of the comments to the ATF opposed any new regulations, with 20 percent of the responses appearing similar to a form letter created by the pro-gun group Gun Owners of America (GOA).
“I thank every Second Amendment supporter who left a pro-gun comment. As GOA has repeatedly warned, bump stock regulations are not only about bump stocks; if bump stocks are regulated, then triggers, magazines, and semi-automatic firearms that allegedly ‘increase the rate of fire’ are at risk of regulation or bans as well,” Erich Pratt, executive director of the group, said in a statement following the analysis.
While agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission have had issues with comments from fake individuals flowing en masse to affect a regulatory outcome, there is no evidence that this has been a factor in the bump-stock comments.
Of the 13 percent of comments that supported regulating bump stocks, 6 percent mirrored suggested text from the Giffords Law Center, which supports gun controls.
“I get it. People didn’t want to miss an opportunity. The question is, when you’re in a movement, this isn’t really the time. What we would rather do is see the [proposed] regulation,” said Chipman of the Giffords Law Center, adding that, more importantly, “We want Congress to have the courage to act.”
“The most efficient approach in this urgent situation is legislative action. I think everyone who understands this process, the regulatory route is something that would take a matter of years. Since Vegas, this is an urgent situation and we don’t have years to figure it out.”
In light of inaction from the federal government, no fewer than 16 states and municipalities have legislation in the works to ban bump stocks. Last year, Columbia, S.C., passed new laws banning them.
Some states, such as New Jersey, that already have restrictions on bump stocks are now working to strengthen them. Bump stocks are illegal in California.