“Bumping” Up Firearm Regulations
“I think it would be a good time to have a hearing. Just find out, ‘How does this technology work?’ and is there a legislative solution.” These are the words of Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, in reference to closing loopholes in some firearm regulations following the devastating Las Vegas shooting earlier this month which killed 59 and injured over 500 people. Graham, along with other politicians, is currently part of a national bipartisan effort to explore these regulations following the deadliest mass shooting in United States history, particularly in investigating “bump” stocks. Even Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has stated that bump stocks are “something we need to look into.” But not all Americans are so happy about this sentiment.
In order to understand the debate, it is important to recognize the different types of firearms that exist: single-shot, semiautomatic, and fully automatic. Single-shot firearms are manually-loaded weapons that fire one round at a time and cannot store a second bullet. Semiautomatic firearms fire a single round per pull of the trigger and automatically reload themselves. These weapons make up a majority of the firearms in the United States. These differ from fully automatic firearms, which fire multiple bullets with a single pull of a trigger, with some firing up to 98 shots in about 7 seconds. Because of the devastation that could result from the use of automatic guns, these weapons have been tightly regulated since 1986 and are currently illegal for civilians to own. But if that is the case, how was Stephen Paddock, the gunman of the Las Vegas shooting, able to implement such destruction? This massacre was made possible by the use of bump stocks. A bump stock - a replacement “stock” of ammunition - lets the rifle body slide between the shoulder and the trigger finger of a semiautomatic weapon, catching the finger on each rebound and allowing the shooter to fire about 90 rounds in about 10 seconds and hundreds of rounds per minute, mimicking the effects of a fully automatic firearm. This accessory is legal and inexpensive (a bump stock is only about $100), and as New York Times writer Drew Jordan claims, can “eas[ily] make a powerful weapon [a semiautomatic firearm] even deadlier.”
It is also crucial to understand a brief history behind the emotionally charged debate surrounding the Second Amendment. In an address given at Princeton University in 1995, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said to his audience: “What I look for in the Constitution is precisely what I look for in a statute: the original meaning of the text, not what the original draftsmen intended.” Scalia, a staunch conservative justice, believed strongly in reading the Constitution the way the Founding Fathers originally understood the text. So why does this approach change when it comes to the Second Amendment and “the right to bear arms”? Traditionally, for over two centuries, the Second Amendment was interpreted in a more literal way that the Founding Fathers intended in terms of allowing firearms for the use of “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.” This changed in 2008 with the monumental Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, which turned the previous notion on its head. The Court ruled that the Second Amendment had two distinguished thoughts, broken up by the second comma in the clause. This redefined the definition of the Second Amendment and changed its meaning to need firearms because “a well regulated Militia” is “necessary” - which was not the original interpretation of the Constitution as the Founding Fathers had intended. Surprisingly, this majority opinion was delivered by Justice Scalia, a known originalist who, as noted earlier, was outspoken about using the text of the Constitution the way its authors designed.
So why is this - an interpretation of the Constitution that necessitates firearms - important, especially when it comes to the Las Vegas shooting? This goes back to 1986, when Republican President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Firearm Owners Protection Act (FOPA). With the goal of protecting firearm owners (as the name suggests), the act ended the recordkeeping of most ammunition sales and limited gunshop inspections to once a year. Most notably, the act banned the transfer or possession of new automatic weapons to non-military, non-police civilian personnel. This included machine guns, and - in the act’s defense - Reagan said: “I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon, or needed for the defense of the home.” FOPA also banned “any part” or “combination of parts” designed to convert “a weapon into a machinegun.” This act, however, did not ban attachments to the exterior of semiautomatic weapons, such as bump stocks, and to this day, they remain legal.
Like Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, and the many other shootings before it, Las Vegas involved the use of semiautomatic weapons. This heinous crime was only made more horrific by the transformation of semiautomatic weapons into makeshift automatic firearms using bump stocks. Since the Las Vegas shooting, politicians have been vocal about stepping up regulations - and even implementing laws - surrounding bump stocks. Even the NRA has spoken out about bump stocks and said via executive vice president Wayne LaPierre that it is “illegal to convert a semiautomatic weapon to a fully automatic one.”
However, regulating - and perhaps banning altogether - the use of bump stocks isn’t a completely bipartisan issue that all politicians agree on. While California Senator Dianne Feinstein is calling for a law to be put in place to ban the use of bump stocks, many Republicans who are opposed to any congressional action whatsoever on bump stocks stand in her way, including Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise - who was wounded by a gunman this past June. Yet, throughout this entire debate, the usually vocal President Trump has remained silent. In a statement made by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, President Trump is currently focusing on efforts for “uniting our country” during this “time of mourning.” Meanwhile, uniting the country will not avenge the lives of those murdered in the Las Vegas shooting and will not secure preventative measures to ensure such a massacre never happens again.