The NRA made a concession on bump stocks – but did we all just get played?

Lois Beckett
The NRA’s concession, heralded as a breakthrough, is so small it is hard to see with the naked eye. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

After the deadliest mass shooting in recent American history, the National Rifle Association has agreed it might be appropriate to regulate a dumb toy that can also be used as a weapon of mass carnage.

The NRA’s concession, heralded as a breakthrough, is so small it is hard to see with the naked eye. The gun rights group broke its silence on the Las Vegas shooting Thursday as media reports suggested Republican members of Congress might support a ban on “bump stocks”, a device that allows semi-automatic rifles to mimic the rapid fire of a fully automatic weapon. Officials confirmed that Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had 12 rifles fitted with bump stocks in the hotel suite he used to stage his attack.

It is not clear how closely the Republicans and NRA coordinated on Thursday, but they moved in quick succession.

“Clearly, that’s something we need to look into,” the House speaker, Paul Ryan, said in a television interview early on Thursday, noting that he had never heard of bump stocks before.

At 2.14pm, the NRA sent out a press blast suggesting that bump stocks “should be subject to additional regulations”, and calling for more review.

At about 2.30pm, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said during a briefing that “we’re certainly open to having that conversation” on regulating bump stocks.

Rather than endorsing a law banning the devices, as Democratic gun control advocates proposed, the NRA said in its statement on Thursday that it was asking the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which had repeatedly ruled that bump stocks did not fall under the regulation of federal firearms statutes, to review its decision.

This is a “pretty small giveback” but “may go a long way to placating people who are demanding action after Las Vegas,” said Robert Spitzer, a gun politics expert at State University of New York at Cortland.

“If this can be changed through a simple administrative ruling from the ATF, you don’t even have to go to Congress to get a law passed. That would be a little plus from the NRA’s point of view,” Spitzer said. “Their basic political default position is no new gun laws. It wouldn’t be a new gun law.”

Even NRA members, Spitzer added, regard bump stocks as having no legitimate use. “I think even the gun people on the inside are saying, ‘Why would you bother to even defend this stupid thing?’” he said.

In a Thursday night interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, said that “the American people are struggling. They’re grieving. And so are the five million members of the National Rifle Association.”

NRA members had been among those shot and killed in the Las Vegas attack on a country music festival, Cox said. “The American people are looking for answers, and so are we.”

When asked about bump stocks, which Carlson called “ludicrous”, Cox said: “We didn’t talk about banning anything.”

He added: “There are not a whole lot of people who own these things.”

Dave Kopel, a gun law expert and gun rights advocate, said it was possible that the ATF might be able to reconsider the decision, but that such a reversal might be tricky. “It might be better to update the statute and say that any device that makes a normal gun fire as fast a machine gun should have to go through the same process as buying a machine gun,” he said.

Having Congress update the 1934 National Firearms Act would be preferable to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s bump stock ban legislation, Kopel said, which was too broad and might fuel an underground market in bump stocks by not providing any way for current owners to register them legally.

Kopel, who has been a gun rights expert and author for decades, noted that he had never heard of bump stocks before this week.

Two of the most prominent online companies that sell bump stocks, Bump Fire Systems and Slide Fire Solutions, are based in Moran, Texas and sell variations on a single product for different models of semi-automatic rifle. Neither appears to be a major gun industry player, though bump stocks do appear to be a significant part of the industry in Moran, which has a population of about 350 people.

If his business had to close, “It would hurt the whole town, the school. We pay a very large amount of property taxes,” Jeremiah Cottle, the 40-year-old owner of Slide Fire Solutions, said in a brief interview with the Dallas Morning News.

At one point Slide Fire Solutions had employed about a 10th of the town’s population, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Slide Fire Solutions and Bump Fire Systems shared a similar online message on Friday: “We have decided to temporarily suspend taking new orders in order to provide the best service with those already placed.” Bump Fire Systems also noted on its website: “Due to extremely high demands, we have temporarily stopped taking orders.”