In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, there have been a handful of bills drafted under the guise of “common sense” that have great intentions: to prevent expanding the capabilities of currently available firearms. I’ll start by saying I mostly agree with the intent; since the 1986 ban on newly manufactured automatic weapons (following on the 1934 NFA’s registration and tax requirements), it makes sense that the intent is to prohibit high rates of sustained fire.
So what’s wrong with these kinds of bills?
The single biggest problem I have with this kind of legislation is that it attempts to rush a binding but sloppy decision based on emotional response. Very little care is put into these kinds of bills, and in particular the language is overly broad and dangerous. I believe this is intentional. Here’s the key passage from Curbelo’s unnumbered proposal:
‘(aa) It shall be unlawful for any person— ‘‘(1) in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, to manufacture, possess, or transfer any part or combination of parts that is designed and functions to increase the rate of fire of a semiautomatic rifle but does not convert the semiautomatic rifle into a machinegun; or ‘‘(2) to manufacture, possess, or transfer any such part or combination of parts that have been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.’
The first problem is that it only deals with interstate commerce, which is what Congress is allowed to deal with. The various States have to deal with things inside their own borders, but the Fed gets to regulate interstate commerce. That means the bill only affects selling across state borders – if you happen to live where the thing is manufactured, you’re perfectly fine to buy one. That makes the bill effectively useless right out of the gate, since the information is readily available to manufacture the parts in your own home with a trip to the hardware store.
The worst issue is this: “any part or combination of parts that is designed and functions to increase the rate of fire of a semiautomatic rifle.” In particular, the “any part or combination of parts.” That is literally sheet metal, screws, springs, and other random bits. You can build gadgets that attach to the trigger or in the stock itself in any manner you like. There are at least three different basic designs that go on the trigger alone, each one completely different than the other. Imagine you’re visited by the BATF and you have just received an order of radio controlled car parts from out of state. Congratulations! You’re now a felon, because there are springs, servos, cranks, and all kinds of things that can be assembled together to make your rifle fire very quickly. No, I’m not kidding in the least.
Slightly less of an issue, but still problematic, is “functions to increase the rate of fire […].” Really? What is the rate of fire of a semiautomatic rifle? Well, there are two ways to approach the question. On the one hand, the rate of fire is exactly one, because you get one round for one pull of the trigger. If you hold back the trigger after the first round for an hour, you get zero additional rounds. On the other hand, it’s the mechanical limit of the parts involved, meaning “as fast as you can pull the trigger”. If the rate of fire is the physical limit of the mechanical parts, then there is no possible way to increase the rate of fire without modifying those parts – and that’s already illegal. Oh, one more point… if I train to fire at rates close those seen on automatic weapons, but I’m still using my finger, is that banned? No. But the effect is still the same.
Do you see my concern? Bills like this sound reasonable. Because they prey on ignorance and emotion, which is decidedly not how laws should be written.
What’s my solution? It turns out that we already have a few tools in place, such as laws against killing people and discharging weapons in public areas. Some of the reasons people want these enhancements are legitimate, including allowing people with physical disabilities to operate firearms safely. I’ll leave to you to decide if entertainment value is legitimate. Frankly, I have no problem banning bump stocks and trigger cranks from the perspective that I don’t see a need in the market. But I do have a significant problem if we’re banning them on the delusion that we’ll all be safer. The fact is we have never seen these devices used in such a way before, though I’m sure you’ll find a few street scenes where they’ve show up (and you’ll probably see more now that they’ve made the news). The first question you have to ask is: will it accomplish anything?
Probably not. If we do ban the ability, then we should admit it’s a conciliatory move to placate the gun control crowd and nothing more. If that’s a legitimate reason, then the right way to do it is to define the context of the devices and ability, and not try to ban “any part or combination of parts” which could quite literally be anything you have in your garage. If you want to ban something, ban the very specific act of modifying the mechanical interaction of human with gun to sustain rates of fire beyond some threshold for some amount of time. Does that leave open the possibility of tuning a device to fire below that threshold? Yep. But there is no rate of fire associated with automatic weapons, either – it could be one round every five seconds, but as long as you only pull the trigger once and hold it, it still counts as automatic. And this approach also makes it possible that someone will exceed the threshold simply by having some skills training.
What’s the point, then?