Are Republicans Ready to Take a Baby Step on Gun Control?

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People in Newtown, Connecticut, attend a vigil remembering the victims of the massacre in Las Vegas on October 4, 2017. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the wake of the murder of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill that would have reinstated the federal assault-weapons ban. It failed, like every piece of new gun-control legislation since 2007.

Just a day after Stephen Paddock opened fired on a music festival in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds, journalists were already writing articles explaining how, even after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, the Republican-controlled Congress wouldn’t “do something” about gun laws.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein decided to push the issue anyway, introducing a bill on Wednesday that focused on one small part of her 2013 bill: banning “bump stocks.” The device makes semiautomatic weapons, which are legal, function like automatic weapons, which have been mostly illegal for decades. Twelve of the weapons found in Paddock’s hotel room were fitted with bump stocks, which allowed him to fire on the crowd of 22,000 at a much faster rate.

In a somewhat surprising development, a handful of Republican lawmakers responded by saying they’re open to banning bump stocks — or at least talking about it.

The bill currently has no GOP sponsors, but Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, told reporters, “I have no problem banning those.”

Other Republicans were undecided, but said they’d consider the subject. Senator Lindsey Graham said the ban is “something I’d be interested in looking at to see if a law change would matter. Would it affect things? I’d be willing to look at that.” Senator John Thune said a ban “is worth having a conversation about, and some of our members agree with that.”

“I own a lot of guns, and as a hunter and sportsman, I think that’s our right as Americans, but I don’t understand the use of this bump stock,” said Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, adding, “It seems like it’s an obvious area we ought to explore and see if it’s something Congress needs to act on.”

Even some pro-gun House Republicans said they were interested in the proposal. “This is such a new component to me, I have no idea how it operates, how simple it is,” said Representative Jeff Duncan.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives approved the “goofy, little doodad” during the Obama administration, as it did not technically alter a gun’s trigger mechanism. The New York Times explains:

The device replaces a rifle’s standard stock, which is the part held against the shoulder. It frees the weapon to slide back and forth rapidly, harnessing the energy from the kickback shooters feel when the weapon fires. The stock “bumps” back and forth between the shooter’s shoulder and trigger finger, causing the rifle to rapidly fire again and again. The shooter holds his or her trigger finger in place, while maintaining forward pressure on the barrel and backward pressure on the pistol grip while firing.

Here’s what it looks like in action:

“Bump stocks — which cost less than $200 — increase a semi-automatic rifle’s rate of fire from between 45 to 60 rounds per minute to between 400 to 800 rounds per minute. That’s the same rate of fire as automatic weapons,” Feinstein said. “The only reason to modify a gun is to kill as many people as possible in as short a time as possible.”

The prospect of Congress doing something that could potentially cut down on the number of victims in the next mass shooting is encouraging, but the sense that Republican lawmakers deserve credit for even entertaining the idea says a lot about the sad state of the gun-control debate.

Plus, it seems very possible that Republicans ultimately won’t embrace this small and relatively clear-cut gun measure. Some immediately ruled out even discussing a bump-stock ban. “I’m a Second Amendment man,” said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama. “I’m not for any gun control, okay? None.”

Once like-minded pundits mobilize on the issue, Republican lawmakers will likely become less willing to talk. Breitbart has already posted a passionate defense of bump-stock devices. It argues Americans have a constitutional right to experience “the fun of mimicking automatic fire,” and it’s elitist to implement a ban when it’s still legal to own certain extremely expensive antique machine guns:

Typical leftist war on the poor — A ban on bump-stock devices takes away the $200 device poorer citizens can buy to at least pretend to be shooting the real machines they will never be able to afford.

Of course, there’s also the National Rifle Association, which spent $52.6 million on bolstering GOP candidates in 2016, and has yet to weigh in on the issue.

For those desperate to see action on gun violence after Las Vegas, the slim hope that Congress could ban bump stocks does seem better than nothing. But it shouldn’t obscure the fact that most Republican lawmakers are choosing not to work toward reducing the horrifically high number of mass shootings in the U.S.

Are Republicans Ready to Take a Baby Step on Gun Control?