When Rubber Bands Become ‘MACHINE GUNS’: Why The Proposed Ban On Bump-Fire Devices Won’t Stop Criminals

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Gary S. Green Retired Professor of Government, Christopher Newport University
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Last week, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) rolled out its proposed ban on “bump-fire” devices — those devices which allow semi-automatic weapons to be fired at rates comparable to machine guns. A “machine gun” currently means any firearm or alteration to it that allows more than one shot to be fired with a single pull of the trigger. The illegal possession of a machine gun carries a maximum penalty of ten years imprisonment and a large fine.

The current ATF proposal seeks to change the definition of a “machine gun” in the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968 to also include:

“bump-stock-type devices, i.e., devices that allow a semiautomatic firearm [that fires a single shot with each pull of the trigger] to shoot more than one shot with a single pull of the trigger by harnessing the recoil energy of the semiautomatic firearm to which it is affixed so that the trigger resets and continues firing without additional physical manipulation of the trigger by the shooter.”

The movement to ban bump-fire devices came to a crescendo after it was reported that Stephen Paddock, the shooter at the Mandalay Bay massacre in October 2017, used bump-fire shoulder stocks on semi-automatic rifles to kill 59 people and to injure over 500 others.

The logic behind the proposal is that if we ban the manufacture of future bump-fire devices, most notably rifle stocks and triggers, and force current owners of such devices to destroy or relinquish them prior to the effective date of the new legal changes, then they will not be available to be used criminally in mass shootings and other violent offenses.

However, the principal implementation problem with this strategy is that a simple rubber band can be easily deployed as a bump-fire device, merely by wrapping one end around the back of the firearm’s trigger and the other around the magazine well (located forward of the trigger) or some other similar forward location.

According to the above ATF-proposed definitional change about what constitutes a “machine gun,” then, using a rubber band or similar device in the way I just described would render the rubber band itself to be a “machine gun” because it allows “the trigger [to be reset] and continues firing without additional physical manipulation of the trigger by the shooter.” (The rubber band would be a “machine gun” if it is attached in this operational manner, and would be such regardless of whether the gun is fired with the band in place.)

In a 1992 case the ATF asserted that possession of a pistol barrel and a shoulder-stocked receiver that would accept it constitutes possession of a “short barreled rifle” (i.e., a barrel of less than 16” that is also outlawed under the National Firearms Act of 1934). However, as Justice O’Connor keenly pointed out during the oral arguments for that case (United States v. Thompson Center Arms Co.), many of us have the components for an “explosive device” laying around our homes—gasoline for our mowers, dish towels, matches, and bottles. But we are not guilty of possessing an explosive device unless we assemble those components into a bomb. In the same way, the simultaneous possession of a semi-automatic firearm and a rubber band isn’t a “machine gun” unless the band is attached to allow bump-firing.

It is clear that the banning of the manufacture and possession of a commercially produced rifle stock or trigger that allows a semi-automatic to mimic full-automatic fire will do absolutely nothing to stop anyone who wants to modify their firearm to bump-fire. All they need is a rubber band (or a belt loop on their trousers).

People who criminally misuse firearms that are capable of simulated full-automatic fire do so knowing full well that this day may be their last. They are also completely aware of the carnage their bump-firing alteration can inflict, as well as the ensuing penalties for injury or death that will, or could, arise by their use of such modified guns. They are quite willing to accept those consequences. Why, then, would we assume that such individuals will be deterred from misusing any bump-fire device simply because it has a 10-year penalty?

Any law that tries to reduce the use of commercially manufactured bump-fire devices in criminal incidents will be utterly futile based on the wide availability of alternative bump-fire mechanisms that cannot be regulated. The proposed legislation by the ATF, then, only hurts law-abiding persons who have already purchased bump-fire devices by forcing them to destroy them or relinquish them to law enforcement, without accomplishing any realistic benefits.

Dr. Gary S. Green is retired Professor of Government at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.