As cries for new gun control laws continue to echo from the tragic shooting in Las Vegas earlier this month, some Republicans and Democrats appear to be in harmony on a gun control proposition. However, even though most people had not heard the words "bump stock" before this month, there appears to be almost no effort on either side in coming to a meaningful understanding of what a bump stock is or what it does. Some representatives, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., mistakenly believe that the devices turn a semi-automatic weapon fully automatic.
This is misinformed and a ban on the devices would be meaningless because, at the end of the day, they are only incidental to the process of rapid "bump firing."
Bump stocks are so called because they are designed around bump firing. So first, let us demystify what bump firing is, as compared to fully automatic fire.
Bump firing uses a weapon's recoil to rapidly actuate the trigger. After each shot, recoil moves the weapon rearward enough for the trigger to reset and then the forward pressure of the left hand moves the gun forward again, against the stationary trigger finger, firing off another shot in rapid succession. Put simply, bump firing is letting the weapon move back and forth under recoil about an inch while the trigger finger stays in one place. The traditional method involves a finger stuck in a belt loop, but can also easily be done from the shoulder with no modifications.
Enter the bump stock. A bump stock is simply a chassis the weapon sits in, allowing it to slide back and forth about an inch. So, to bump fire, instead of a belt loop, the trigger finger sits on a plastic shelf while the rest of the gun is pushed forward with the nonfiring hand, tripping the trigger and firing the weapon. As above, recoil drives the gun rearward, resetting the trigger, allowing it to fire again.
It is important to note that to get a gun to bump fire, with or without a special stock, the trigger finger has to stay completely still. This means the shooter has to stay as still as possible while pressing the weapon forward. This is why successful bump firing requires a sterile environment, where the shooter can stand completely still to take advantage of the recoil. A fully automatic weapon, on the other hand, fires as long as the trigger is pulled no matter what.
Under U.S. law, a fully automatic machine gun is a weapon which fires more than once with a single actuation of the trigger. This is why bump firing a semi-automatic weapon does not make it a machine gun.
So, clearly, rapid bump fire is not a function of the stock, but a natural byproduct of recoil. It is for that reason, and several others, that a ban on bump stocks would not make any difference, much less enough of a difference to justify a ban. The only way to prevent bump firing would be to ban recoil, which would be more than a little bit difficult — you can't repeal the laws of physics.
Furthermore, the Second Amendment protects all arms in common lawful use. While there is some debate as to just what constitutes the "arm," it is not frivolous to believe the Framers intended the entire gun, stock and all, to be protected. "Lawful use" includes all lawful uses: self-defense, target shooting, hunting, and otherwise. Bump stocks are most commonly used to giggle and waste ammunition at the range. While it may not be a tremendously utilitarian use, fun at the range is still a lawful use. To be constitutional, a ban on bump stocks would have to be sufficiently tailored to solving an important problem in order to justify rendering previously lawful uses criminal.
Certainly the government has a good reason to want to prevent tragedies like what happened in Las Vegas. However, we have to ask: Would a ban on bump stocks have saved any lives? Probably not.
Stephen Paddock was able to cause so much heartbreak because he was able to project force onto the street below, not because of a bump stock. What made Paddock so deadly was his position: an elevated platform, enabling him to fire continuously at the crowd below. This is not a novel theory, either. In 1966, Charles Whitman used a bolt-action hunting rifle to fire into a much less densely populated square from the University of Texas clock tower, killing 18 and wounding 31.
Paddock, too, fired from a vantage point. But before we blame stock, consider what would have been different in its absence. Since his hotel room presented a somewhat sterile environment to fire from, could he have just as well bump-fired from his belt loop? In a world where recoil simply did not exist, could he have projected as much force with a semi-automatic shotgun, slinging six to 10 lethal projectiles per trigger pull?
What is clear is that a vantage point above a crowded street is what made him so unfortunately lethal. To contend that the stock is responsible is misinformed at best, dishonest at worst.
Matthew Larosiere is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He holds a J.D. and LL.M. in taxation from the University of Alabama School of Law and is pending admission to practice law in Florida. He is also a Young Voices advocate.
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