About-Face on Bump Stocks Triggers Gun-Owner Protests

A little-known device called a “bump stock” is attached to a semi-automatic rifle at the Gun Vault store and shooting range on Oct. 4, 2017, in South Jordan, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Trump administration unveiled a rule change Tuesday that paves the way for an all-out ban by March 2019 of bump-stock devices: firearm attachments that make it possible to fire semiautomatic weapons as rapidly as any fully automatic firearm.

Though the final rule announced this morning by Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker is not yet in the federal register, it is widely expected to be published Friday.

That did not stop three gun-rights groups from filing suit this afternoon, however, on behalf of bump-stock owner Damien Gudes. 

Represented by the Civil Rights Defense Firm, Gudes says the new rule from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives represents an unconstitutional taking that puts gun owners like Gudes in an “untenable position.” 

Gudes says the final rule runs contrary to “multiple determinations, correspondence to Congress and sworn testimony in federal court” by the ATF that bump stocks cannot be regulated under the Gun Control Act and National Firearms Act because they are not in fact machine guns.

The about-face “actively [attempts] to make felons out of people who relied on their legal opinions to lawfully acquire and posses devices the government unilaterally, unconstitutionally and improperly decided to reclassify as ‘machine guns,” said attorney Joshua Prince in a statement through the Firearms Policy Coalition, one of the named plaintiffs in the Washington case.

Calls to ban bump stocks hit a fever pitch last year after Stephen Paddock used a bump-stock device to fire on a crowd of concertgoers at a music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, from the safety of his hotel room. Discharging more than 1,000 rounds in roughly 15 minutes, Paddock killed 58, injured 851 and then took his own life.

The Justice Department announced its formal proposal to categorize the devices as machine guns after President Donald Trump issued the call to ban bump stocks this past March.

In the intervening months, that proposal inspired more than 35,000 public comments. 

The National Rifle Association of America was among those that issued a comment, and NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker called the final rule “disappointing.”

“[It] fails to address the thousands of law-abiding Americans who relied on prior ATF determinations when lawfully acquiring these devices,” Baker said in a statement Tuesday. “As we recommended to ATF in our comments on the proposed rule, Congress made it possible for the attorney general to provide amnesty for firearms regulated under the National Firearms Act. The attorney general should have exercised that authority to provide a period of amnesty under this rule.”

The new rule specifies that bump stocks, slide-fire devices and “devices with certain similar characteristics” are legally considered machine guns under the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968.

Though bump stock devices prohibited in the new rule were not existence prior to the formation of those laws, the Justice Department said Tuesday the new rule now encompasses both pieces of legislation.

Tuesday’s announcement officially invalidates a 2010 decision in which the ATF determined that bump stocks are not machine guns – nor related in any way. At the time, the bureau stipulated that prohibitions could be made only with congressional input or brand new legislation. Since the Las Vegas shooting – considered to be America’s deadliest mass shooting in modern history – Congress ultimately failed to come together on a bill, leaving it up to state officials instead.

Bump stocks have been illegal in places like California since the 1990s but several states have successfully banned the devices in recent years.

Massachusetts was the first state to ban bump stocks after the shooting in Las Vegas. Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware, Hawaii, Florida, New Jersey, Washington, Rhode Island and Vermont quickly followed suit.

Once the ATF rule enters the register, a deadline is triggered. Individuals who own bump stocks will have 90 days from that point to destroy or turn in their devices.

An Associated Press report Tuesday quotes an unnamed senior official with the Justice Department as saying they are prepared to fend off any legal challenges to the rule. The Office of Legal Counsel thoroughly reviewed and approved it before Tuesday’s announcement, according to the article.

One component of the Gudes lawsuit includes a challenge to the appointment of Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.

Similar challenges, including one in September by Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, have appeared in other federal courts since President Donald Trump appointed Whitaker.

Frosh sued the Trump administration for its attempt to unwind the federal health care law known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Like Frosh, Prince claims Whitaker lacks the authority to enforce policy because the president’s pick occurred in violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.

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