The Trump administration on Tuesday issued a sweeping new gun control regulation to ban bump stocks, which harness the recoil energy from semi-automatic rifles to increase the firearms’ rate of fire. The regulation was issued 14 months following the mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas in which 58 people were killed and hundreds more were injured. It was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
The shooter, who killed himself before police were able to take him into custody, added bump stocks to several of his rifles. Critics of the devices, including the Trump administration, claim that bump fire stocks illegally convert semi-automatic rifles, which are legal for civilians to possess, into fully automatic machine guns, which are not legal for civilians to possess absent explicit permission from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE). The new rule makes bump stocks illegal and turns their owners into felons if they do not destroy their bump stocks or surrender them to BATFE officials within the next 90 days.
The new rule represents the most sweeping federal gun control effort since the so-called assault weapons ban, which was passed in 1994 and expired in 2003. Even the Obama administration, which was overtly hostile to Second Amendment rights, rejected the logic of Trump’s bump stock ban.
As a matter of both law and physics, the Trump administration’s gun control rule banning bump stocks is an abomination. The Department of Justice (DOJ), which formally issued the rule, not only ignores underlying federal statutes that precisely define what constitutes a fully automatic “machine gun,” it also ignores the mechanics of how guns are fired and how bump stocks increase the rate of fire. Even worse, the faulty logic of the new gun control rule could eventually be used as a basis for a presidential administration unilaterally banning and confiscating all semi-automatic weapons.
To fully understand how lawless and uniformed the Trump administration’s new rule is, one must first understand the federal statutory definition of a “machine gun,” the process by which semi-automatic and fully automatic firearms function, and the precise means by which bump stocks increase the rate of fire of a semi-automatic weapon.
A fully automatic weapon, or “machine gun,” fires multiple rounds with a single operation of the trigger until the firearm runs out of ammunition. A semi-automatic weapon fires only one round per operation of the trigger. Both types of firearm use the recoil energy generated by the firing of a round to eject the spent shell casing, strip a new round from the magazine, place that round into the chamber so that it is ready to be fired, and reset the hammer so that it is in position to hit the firing pin and shoot another round.
In a machine gun, as long as the trigger is depressed, the hammer will keep cycling and hitting the firing pin and firing new rounds until the trigger is released or the firearm runs out of ammunition. In a semi-automatic weapon, the hammer cannot be released until the trigger is released and then operated again.
If you’re not a gun person, these differences may seem pedantic and semantic, but their importance cannot be overstated, either legally or mechanically. That’s because federal law, specifically the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934, the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968, and the Firearm Owners Protection Act (FOPA) of 1986, define and treat semi-automatic and fully automatic guns differently in significant ways. Absent explicit permission from BATFE, an invasive process that can take years, civilian possession of a machine gun manufactured after 1986 is a felony that results in significant prison time. Even the mere possession of a single distinctive part of a machine gun, such as a sear or hammer from the trigger assembly, is enough to make you a felon.
Here is the current federal statutory definition of a “machine gun”:
any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger. The term shall also include the frame or receiver of any such weapon, any part designed and intended solely and exclusively, or combination of parts designed and intended, for use in converting a weapon into a machinegun, and any combination of parts from which a machinegun can be assembled if such parts are in the possession or under the control of a person.
The phrase “a single function of the trigger” is extremely important. As noted above, a fully automatic weapon fires multiple rounds with a single trigger operation. A semi-automatic weapon requires multiple trigger operations to fire multiple rounds.
A bump stock simply doesn’t change how a semi-automatic weapon fires; it merely increases the rate of fire by using the weapon’s recoil energy to increase the rate of single-trigger operations by the user’s finger. It is physically and mechanically impossible for an external piece of plastic with no moving parts, which is what a bump stock is, to alter the internal trigger mechanism of the actual firearm to fire multiple rounds with a single trigger operation. Bump stocks simply do not, in any universe, change the internal functions or eliminate the internal mechanical constraints that make a semi-automatic weapon incapable of fully automatic fire.
Unfortunately, neither the laws of physics nor the laws of the United States constrained the Trump DOJ from promulgating the latest rule. Notwithstanding the clear statutory definition of “machine gun” and the mechanics required for a firearm to be fully automatic, DOJ effectively declared in its new rule that up is down and hot is cold. It is essentially grabbing for itself Congress’s exclusive right to make laws. Here’s how the federal law enforcement agency defined “machine gun” in its new rule:
The term “machine gun” includes a bump-stock-type device, i.e., a device that allows a semi-automatic firearm to shoot more than one shot with a single pull of the trigger by harnessing the recoil energy of the semi-automatic firearm to which it is affixed so that the trigger resets and continues firing without additional physical manipulation of the trigger by the shooter.
“Clearly, bump-fire stocks were designed to allow faster rates of fire than most could attain without these devices and they were obviously designed around the current laws concerning machine guns,” federal firearms attorney and former Army Ranger sniper team leader Ryan Cleckner writes. “However, they do not make a firearm into a machine gun – that is until this new rule, at least.”
A bump stock does not allow a semi-automatic firearm to “shoot more than one shot with a single pull of the trigger.” It increases the rate at which a user’s finger pulls the trigger. DOJ’s new definition, which flies in the face of reality and outright ignores the statutory definition in law, is false. It is a lie. And it is a lie so absurd that not even the pro-gun control Obama administration was willing to countenance it.
In June 2010, BATFE’s firearms branch chief John R. Spencer noted as much when he ruled, following extensive examination, that bump stocks were entirely legal under the NFA because they did not alter the internal function of semi-automatic firearms.
“The stock has no automatically functioning mechanical parts or springs and performs no automatic function when installed,” Spencer declared. “In order to use the installed device, the shooter must apply constant forward pressure with the non-shooting hand and constant rearward pressure with the shooting hand.”
“Accordingly, we find that the ‘bump-stock’ is a firearm part and is not a regulated firearm under [the] Gun Control Act or the National Firearms Act.”
Even though a bump stock has no moving parts, no barrel, no chamber, no trigger, no buffer tube, and no springs, the Trump administration declared it to be a firearm all by itself. And because the new DOJ rule contains no language requiring intent to be demonstrated in order to determine whether the object’s possession constitutes a felony, an individual who owns no actual guns and no ammunition but has an unopened box containing a bump stock in a closet somewhere will instantly be a felon under the new Trump rule.
The reasoning behind and the drafting of the rule is so bad that once it takes effect, an individual who owns no actual guns but is convicted of possessing an illegal bump stock would be subject to a maximum prison sentence of 10 years (18 U.S.C. 922(q)(2)(A) and 18 U.S.C. 924(a)(1)(B)), while an unauthorized individual who was convicted of bring a loaded rifle into an elementary school would be subject to maximum prison sentence of just 5 years (26 U.S.C. 5861 and 26 U.S.C. 5871).
The new bump stock ban ignores the current statutory definition of a machine gun, creates a new regulatory definition contrary to the existing statutory definition (and contrary to how the U.S. Constitution requires new laws to be passed and enacted), and falsely characterizes how bump stocks work in order to implement a nationwide gun control ban and confiscation regime.
If the government can get away with lawlessly declaring a piece of plastic to be a machine gun, then it can get away with saying your AR-15 is a machine gun, knocking in your door, confiscating your guns, and throwing you in prison.
President Donald Trump should be ashamed for allowing this to happen, acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker should be ashamed for signing the rule’s promulgation, and everyone at BATFE who enforces this blatantly lawless gun control power grab should be ashamed for taking part in the scam.
Having a pen and a phone is no excuse for President Donald J. Trump ignoring the U.S. Constitution and existing federal law.