How the NRA and the far-right are quietly mobilizing to kill gun safety reform after Vegas

If you're talking about bump stocks, you don't have to talk about assault rifles.

President Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association-ILA Leadership Forum, Friday, April 28, 2017, in Atlanta. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mike Stewart
President Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association-ILA Leadership Forum, Friday, April 28, 2017, in Atlanta. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mike Stewart

On Sunday night, a gunman in Las Vegas killed 59 people and injured more than 500 others. When law enforcement searched the hotel room 64-year-old Stephen Paddock had been shooting from, they found 18 guns, several of which were semi-automatic weapons Paddock had modified with bump stocks.

Since then, bump stocks have been a hot topic in D.C., and in a rare move Thursday, the NRA came out in favor of regulating bump stock modifications.

“Unfortunately, the first response [to the Las Vegas shooting] from some politicians has been to call for more gun control. Banning guns from law-abiding Americans will do nothing to prevent future attacks,” the statement read.

However, the statement went on, saying, “The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”

A typical semi-automatic weapon fires at the rate of 45 to 60 rounds per minute, while the bump stock makes it possible to fire a semi-automatic weapon at the rate of an automatic weapon, between 600 and 800 rounds per minute. Fully automatic weapons have been illegal in the United States since 1986, though the transfer of automatic weapons made before the law was passed is still legal.

It’s important to note that, while Thursday’s statement seems out of character for the NRA, it doesn’t call for any legislation, only an ATF review of whether they comply with current law. More telling, in the same statement, the NRA urged Congress to pass “National Right-to-Carry reciprocity,” which would make it easier for gun owners to carry across state lines.

In reality, Thursday’s statement is likely part of a wider strategy on the part of some conservatives: as long as the NRA is talking about bump stocks, they don’t have to talk about assault rifles.

“The story is this guy had a bunch of assault rifles,” said David Chipman, a senior policy adviser at Americans for Responsible Solutions, referring to Paddock. That’s the more pressing issue, as he sees it — that Paddock bought 33 long guns in just 12 months. While multiple handgun purchases require ATF notification, the same isn’t true for long guns.

Gun advocates have certainly been doing their best to draw attention to other issues by offering distracting, if easily debunked, alternative talking points.

“Thought: With the debate on bump fire, will the ATF be forced to redefine machine gun? You don’t need a bump stock for bump fire,” NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch tweeted on Wednesday morning. “Regardless your opinion on bump fire, I’m just curious how lawmakers plan to regulate a technique. Accessories are not needed.”

As Chipman tells it, bump fire is indeed a technique that a shooter can use to increase the rate at which a semi-automatic can fire by adjusting their stance and grip. “It allows you to use the physics of how a gun works to produce the higher rate of fire. It does not meet a fully automatic but it does allow you to fire quicker,” he said.

But bump stock modifications remove the need for technique, and bump fire technique, Chipman said, does not allow a shooter to fire the 600 to 800 rounds per minute that a bump stock modification (or fully automatic firearm) would.

Conservative media (and Loesch) have also been leaning on another popular argument as a diversion: that bump stocks were approved by ATF during the Obama administration.

“About a year and a half into the Barack Obama administration — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives issued an opinion letter, giving the go-ahead to an after-market accessory that allows the user to ‘bump fire’ a semi-automatic rifle,” CNS news wrote on Wednesday morning.

Loesch shared the story on Twitter, and Breitbart ran with the argument Wednesday as well (it should be noted that the latter also published a story that same day calling the momentum around banning bump stocks a “typical leftist war on the poor“).

By Wednesday night, the Obama talking point had, unsurprisingly, made its way to Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier.

“Where some Republicans are finding agreement is on so-called bump stocks that the Las Vegas shooter used to turn a semiautomatic rifle into a near machine gun,” Baier said. “They were legalized by the ATF during the Obama administration.”

In its official statement on Thursday, the NRA also mentioned that the bump stocks had been approved during the Obama years, painting a picture of themselves as “good guys” who had taken the initiative despite doing nothing wrong.

“Despite the fact that the Obama administration approved the sale of bump fire stocks on at least two occasions, the National Rifle Association is calling on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) to immediately review whether these devices comply with federal law,” the statement read.

This talking point works as a diversion, but Chipman didn’t mince words when explaining to ThinkProgress why the Obama administration had approved the modification.

“ATF approved it because it’s a piece of shit,” Chipman said. “Bump stocks do not kill people… Absent the military grade rifle, they’re fine.”

Chipman specifically noted that Slide Fire, the company that produces the bump stocks, painted the modifications in a different light when they went to ATF for approval.

Screenshot from ATF approval letter
Screenshot from ATF approval letter

The 2010 approval letter, which Slide Fire posted on its website, reads in part, “Your letter advises that the stock…is intended to assist persons whose hands have limited mobility to ‘bump-fire’ an AR-15 rifle.”

As Chipman deftly noted, “That has nothing to do with wounded vets. It’s a total scam.”

Ignoring the easily-debunked talking points that have been rolled out in the wake of the Las Vegas tragedy, Chipman instead offered up a few things on which gun control and gun safety advocates can focus, including banning assault rifles or making long gun purchases easier to track. As long as the attention is focused on bump stocks, he said, the NRA doesn’t have to talk about assault rifles, which arguably plays right into its overall goals.

“These people are brilliant. They have tons of money,” Chipman said of the gun lobby. “We have to keep our eye on the ball.”

His point on spending is absolutely true: In 2016, the NRA spent more than $3.1 million on lobbying, cementing its place as one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country. During the 2016 campaign cycle, the NRA spent more than $830,000 on federal campaigns to line the halls of power with legislators who will do their bidding.

Not everyone has taken the bait.

On Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a bill, along with more than two dozen Democratic co-sponsors, that would outlaw the bump stock modifications.

“The only reason to fire so many rounds so fast is to kill large numbers of people,” Feinstein said in a statement. “No one should be able to easily and cheaply modify legal weapons into what are essentially machine guns.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told ThinkProgress on Wednesday that other Republicans have said privately they would support a ban like the one Feinstein is proposing.

On Wednesday afternoon, several high profile Republicans voiced support for a deeper look into the issue as well, a rare move for the party that typically bucks gun control issues.

“It’s clear we need more information about this technology, how it works, and who should have access to it,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), the chair of the House GOP said Wednesday.

Other Republicans have echoed that call, signaling a willingness to have hearings and potentially even a vote on Feinstein’s bill or another like it. On MSNBC Wednesday morning, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) said there is “no question” Congress should look into bump stocks, and hours after Feinstein unveiled her bill, Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said he thought Congress should hold hearings on the bill.

Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) was the first Republican to call for an outright ban.

“I think they should be banned. There’s no reason for a typical gun owner to own anything that converts a semi-automatic to something that behaves like an automatic,” he told The HillIn the wake of Flores’ comments, several other House Republicans — Reps. Ryan Costello (R-PA), Charlie Dent (R-PA) and Leonard Lance (R-NJ) — followed suit, issuing their own aggressive statements on the matter. 

But many of the Republicans who have said they would consider supporting a bump stock ban are themselves recipients of NRA spending, as well as a small handful of Democrats. Cole, for example, took $5,000 from the group for his last campaign, Inhofe took $9,450, Cornyn took $9,900, and Flores took $2,000.

On Thursday morning, the Associated Press reported that the NRA had reached out to Flores in particular out of “concern” after seeing his call to ban bump stocks — that was ahead of the NRA’s official statement on Thursday afternoon.

All of the talking points and the conflicting messages from the NRA and its advocates are raising red flags for Chipman, who worked for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms for 25 years before joining Americans for Responsible Solutions. For him, that sinking feeling is familiar.

“I hate sports analogies, but I briefly played football in high school, and one of the things they told you if you’re suddenly able to go past the lineman… If you’ve been fighting a battle that’s blood, guts, if everything suddenly gets really easy? Then you’re about to be had,” he said.