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Congress, ATF play hot potato with bump stock restrictions

Kate Irby, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- Two days into the grief after yet another mass shooting in the United States, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, talked Tuesday about some areas of legislative consensus between Democrats and Republicans on gun issues.

Not on his list: banning or restricting bump stocks, the devices that Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock attached to the firearms he used to kill 58 people on Oct. 1, turning them into virtual machine guns. Cornyn punted on the issue, as many congressional Republicans have been doing since shortly after the tragedy, the biggest mass shooting in American history.

According to the Texas senator, it will be up to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to explain at a Judiciary Committee hearing why the agency believes it can't take action on its own. The panel's chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said last week he would call a hearing on bump stocks featuring ATF officials; he reiterated that Monday, but no date has been set.

Immediately following the Vegas shooting, Republicans and Democrats alike seemed open to a possible ban on bump stocks. Even the National Rifle Association said in a statement that bump stocks "should be subject to additional regulations." Bills were introduced with support from lawmakers in both parties.

The NRA, however, soon made it clear it only supported additional regulations from ATF, not new legislation in Congress; Republican leaders such as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., soon circulated the same message, and the matter was kicked to the agency.

But ATF has repeatedly told Congress that it doesn't have the authority to regulate bump stocks, also known as bump slides, without additional legislation.

And so the faceoff goes.

Cornyn said he hoped that ATF officials would explain their logic at the hearing.

"I think we'll learn from that hearing if we should legislate on it," Cornyn said, calling the issue a "regulatory gap" but not specifying who he believed had the authority to regulate -- Congress or the ATF.

There have been no reports that the Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooter Devin Kelley used a bump stock in the Sunday attack that killed 26 people.

In a letter sent to Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., dated Oct. 12, a group of current and former ATF employees explained why the agency was holding back. Curbelo is sponsoring a bill to ban bump stocks; the NRA has come out against it.

Bump stocks essentially convert legal semi-automatic weapons, which require a pull of the trigger to fire each bullet, into guns more like illegal automatic weapons, which fire a spray of bullets when the trigger is held down.

But "The bump slide, and several other similar after-market accessories that increase the rate at which a shooter can pull the trigger, are engineered to avoid regulation under Federal law," the letter to Curbelo said. "These accessories DO NOT cause the firearm to shoot more than one shot by the single function of a trigger pull. The notion that ATF chose not to regulate an item it had the authority to regulate is false. The law is very clear and it does not currently allow ATF to regulate such accessories."

Adding to the confusion, Cherie Duvall-Jones, spokeswoman for the ATF, would not specify, in response to questions from McClatchy, whether the ATF believes bump stocks fall under a ban on machine guns, the classification of which, under the law, can include accessories or parts intended to convert a weapon into a machine gun. She also said the current process does not require the firearms industry to submit items for classification before putting them on the market.

Curbelo has questioned why certain Republicans were still trying to pass the issue off to ATF.

"Obviously, among Republicans and especially leadership, the idea of giving ATF the opportunity to issue new regulations has gained a lot of momentum. I think that is a waste of time because ATF has expressed in the past at least twice that they have no authority under existing law to regulate," Curbelo told McClatchy recently. "So I'm confident that once they go through this exercise and it yields nothing, our legislation will again feature prominently as THE solution to this situation."

Besides Curbelo, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is sponsoring a bill that would ban bump stocks and other accessories that make firearms behave similarly to automatic weapons. Feinstein, echoing Curbelo, has said she has two letters from the ATF saying they do not have the power to regulate bump stocks.

Feinstein said Tuesday she is "hopeful" Grassley's hearing will result in more legislative action. Cornyn said he wanted to wait for the ATF hearing, but "if it does (require legislation), I'm happy to do what we need to do to give them the authority."

Kristen Rand, the legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit dedicated to ending gun deaths, described the refusal by members of Congress to take up legislation as "classic not wanting to cross the NRA."

"It's purely political," Rand said. "This is just such a clear-cut case, there's no gray area here."

(c)2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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