Before Stephen Paddock opened fire at a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip last October, killing 58 and wounding hundreds, most Americans probably hadn’t heard of bump-fire stocks — add-ons that lets a semiautomatic rifle fire as quickly as a machine gun. Until that mass shooting, they were a novelty known only among firing-range enthusiasts and Cool Gun YouTube.
Within months of Las Vegas, lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation to outlaw the devices, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or ATF, announced plans to ban them through regulation.
But gun control advocates warn bump stocks are just one part of a much bigger problem. A flood of new gun technologies is pushing the envelope on what a civilian can legally own, skirting laws that have kept the most dangerous weapons off the street for decades.
Like bump stocks, these other technologies are primarily found on gun ranges and YouTube videos. They’re designed to skirt existing gun laws — to deliver the same deadly effect as a banned weapon, but with a technical change that makes them legal to own, carry, and sell.
“What the industry is doing is it’s sitting down and it’s saying … we’re going to devise any possible way to work around this legally,” Chipman, now a senior policy advisor at the advocacy group Giffords Law Center, told ThinkProgress. “And so what you have is devices that are legal. They are lawful, but they are awful.”
The National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s largest trade group, did not return requests for comment.
Small weapons that do huge damage
Weapons like machine guns, silencers, and short-barreled rifles and shotguns are regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934 and subsequent amendments. To own one of those weapons, a civilian has to go through a lengthy approval process and pay a special tax. The job of deciding whether a gun falls under NFA’s restrictions falls to ATF.
Gun manufacturers have used the law’s technicalities to create guns that are just as powerful, and deadly, as restricted weapons but without the added tax and strict regulations.
Take the SAINT, by Springfield Armory. It’s an AR-15 with a 30-round magazine and a 7.5-inch barrel. That’s shorter than the legal rifle length under federal law. But instead of a shoulder stock, the SAINT has a “stabilizing brace” or “forearm brace” — a device designed to attach to a shooter’s forearm for one-handed firing rather than resting against their shoulder. By ATF’s definition, the SAINT is a pistol, not a rifle, because it isn’t meant to be fired from the shoulder. So anyone who can pass a federal background check can buy one online for $989.
The company touts how small and lightweight the gun is on its website, which advertises the weapon for “QCB,” or close-quarters combat: “This pistol delivers the punch of a rifle caliber in a small, fast-handling frame.”
Those are the same qualities that gun-control advocates say makes these kinds of weapons as deadly as a short-barrelled rifle, which is highly regulated.
“They are lawful, but they are awful.”
Short-barreled rifles are less accurate than ones with longer barrels, and they fire at a lower velocity because of their barrel length. They’ve long been used by police SWAT teams and in military settings where weight and maneuverability are more important than accuracy.
“Inside a building or inside a vehicle, it’s more maneuverable with a short barrel,” Mark Jones, another former ATF special agent who’s now a gun control advocate, told ThinkProgress.
“It’s easier to retain if you are doing some sort of police clearing operation.” Jones continued. “You’re not going to telegraph yourself going around a wall.”
Like bump stocks, stabilizing braces were originally designed for people with physical disabilities. ATF approved the devices. But, in a January 2015 open letter, the agency strongly implied that firing a pistol fitted with a stabilizing brace from the shoulder would convert it into a short-barreled rifle, which requires a special tax and registration.
Use the stabilizing brace as it was designed, ATF seemed to say, and you’re fine. But shoulder it, and you’ve run afoul of the National Firearms Act.
“It’s not really loopholes… We just follow the letter to the law.”
ATF seemed to back off that decision in January 2017, under pressure from the gun accessories manufacturer SB Tactical. In a letter to the company, the agency clarified that shouldering a pistol equipped with a stabilizing brace doesn’t necessarily make it a short-barreled rifle subject to National Firearms Act regulations.
A video on SB Tactical’s website shows shooters using the company’s products to brace pistols on their forearms, as the product is designed, but also on their shoulders and against their cheeks. The video also touts the fact that a stabilizing brace can be attached to a short-barreled AR-15 or AK-47 without falling under the National Firearms Act.
“You can purchase and sell, transport, and carry your brace-equipped PDW (personal defense weapon) pistol just like a handgun, in accordance with the laws in your jurisdiction,” the video says. “Legally purchase and sell your PDW pistol as you would any other handgun. There is no NFA paperwork or wait times when purchasing or selling your pistol equipped with a pistol stabilizing brace.”
Because AR-15 and AK-47 pistols are classified as handguns, it’s difficult to get hard statistics on how often they’re used in crimes. But for advocates like Chipman, they’re a ticking time bomb.
“Although I don’t know of a mass shooting that one of these weapons has been used in, you can just look at any Twitter feed of any local law enforcement department and you will see these guns frequently being turned up in violent street crimes today,” he said. “And the reason is, they look badass, they look violent, they’re intimidating looking. And they do one thing that is uniquely deadly — they fire a rifle round that can penetrate a cop’s vest. And that’s what we should be very concerned about.”
Faster means deadlier
Stabilizing braces aren’t the only new gun tech to skirt around the National Firearms Act. Franklin Armory’s Binary Trigger System fires two rounds with every shot — one when the trigger is depressed and one when it’s released, doubling the rate of fire. Like bump stocks and stabilizing braces, binary triggers aren’t currently regulated under the National Firearms Act.
Sun Naegele, marketing manager for Franklin Armory, says binary triggers are the company’s best-selling product. It originally designed them for competition shooters who want to get their split times down.
“A lot of people say it’s loopholes, but it’s not really loopholes,” Naegele told ThinkProgress of the binary trigger. “We just follow the letter to the law.”
Asked whether Congress should more tightly regulate devices like binary triggers, Naegele declined to comment.
Springfield Armory and SB Tactical did not immediately return requests for comment.
As the gun industry continues to innovate in ways never contemplated by legislators in the 1930s and 1980s, when Congress passed an update to the National Firearms Act, some gun control advocates are calling on Congress to again update the law to cover these emerging technologies.
“We have a good playbook,” Chipman said. ‘It’s been in place since 1934. Those guns are particularly lethal and we should have never stopped regulating them — no matter what fancy way was used to circumvent that law. But that’s where we are today.”