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Time to “bump” the bump-stock?

The Las Vegas shooting tragedy has revived the highly debated topic of gun control, including proposed measures to prohibit devices such as those which helped the Las Vegas shooter increase his rate of fire on innocent victims.

Photo: George Frey/Getty Images, The Washington Post, (Courtesy of Google Images)

On a clear, fall night on the first day of October, 20,000 country music fans gathered for the final performance of the Route 91 Harvest Festival held in Las Vegas, Nevada. The 3-day event occurred in a large open space off the Las Vegas “strip,” and included popular acts such as Eric Church and Sam Hunt. The final day was going as scheduled, with Jason Aldean set to do the final performance to close out the event. At about 10:05PM, during Aldean’s performance, what sounded like “fireworks” disrupted the music. When concertgoers began to fall to the ground, the crowd realized the sound was not fireworks, but gunfire. Unbeknownst to those in attendance, a man named Stephen Paddock had begun to open fire on the crowd from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, across the street from the festival venue.

The concert–goers ran to escape the hail of gunfire, with some lying down for cover in the grass because the shooter’s location could not be immediately identified. “I saw the police lights – they were all going to the concert,” Chris Bethel told the Star–Telegram. Bethel is a Fort Worth, Texas resident who was two floors below the shooter at the hotel. “I think they thought he was across the street, but he wasn’t.” Eyewitnesses and victims stated they heard four distinct periods of automatic gunfire. It was estimated Paddock fired more than 900 rounds into the crowd over the course of 9 minutes.

“I’ve never experienced gunshots but when I felt air go right past my arm I told my husband, ‘I don’t think that’s fireworks.'”

Laurie Beaton, a Bakersfield California resident, gave her account of the tragic incident where she lost her husband, Jack Beaton, on their 23rd anniversary. “I’ve never experienced gunshots but when I felt air go right past my arm I told my husband, ‘I don’t think that’s fireworks.'” “He told me, ‘Get down, get down, get down,'” and put his own body on top of hers for protection, she said. “He told me, ‘I love you, Laurie’ and his arms were around me and his body just went heavy on me.” Suddenly, she knew her husband had been shot. “I screamed his name and he wasn’t answering me,” she said. Beaton ran to safety with the aid of another concert–goer and began calling the local hospitals to see if Jack had been helped. She received no information until she called the coroner and was told her husband was among those who died. Beaton told NBC Chicago that her husband wouldn’t have wanted much said about his death, but she wanted people to know that he protected her as he had always done. “I knew every day that he would protect me and take care of me and love me unconditionally, and what he did is no surprise to me, and he is my hero.”

In all, Paddock murdered 58 people and injured 500 more before turning his weapon on himself as officers raided his barricaded hotel room. In the aftermath investigation, officers recovered 23 weapons from his room, which included multiple rifles with scopes attached. Investigators also recovered stacks of gun magazines, as well as ammunition for various firearms. Of all the rifles that Paddock had in his room on that evening, 12 of them were outfitted with what are known as “bump–fire stocks.”

A bump–stock is a device that can be installed on semi–automatic firearms by replacing the rifles’ standard stock. A rifle stock is the portion of a firearm that allows it to be held against one’s shoulder to fire the weapon in a more stabilized manner. They can be made from wood or other materials such as plastics, fiberglass, and metal that vary in shape and size depending upon the firearm and the material used. Bump–stocks usually have two main parts, a block that replaces the pistol grip and a hollow shoulder stock installed over the rear of the rifle. The bump-stock’s purpose is to “harness the recoil energy produced when a shot is fired” and it “‘bumps’ the weapon back and forth between the shooter’s shoulder and trigger finger.” This ultimately allows the shooter to achieve a rate of fire comparable to that of a fully–automatic weapon.

The device was created by Jeremiah Cottle, a Texas man, in 2010. Cottle and a friend were out shooting one day and found they “weren’t able to fire as fast as [they] wanted.” Cottle then went to his shop and began to brainstorm a device that would allow him to simulate fire that was near that of a fully–automatic rifle. “I toyed around with the idea of a sling type stock for a couple months, and then one night the idea just popped into my head,” said Cottle to The Albany News. “I went out into the shop and made the first prototype in about two hours out of a piece of lumber and some metal. I tested it the next day and knew I had something.”

After a few prototypes, a conversation with a patent attorney, and $75,000 to create a mold for the device’s production, Cottle officially launched sales of the device under the company name Slide Fire Solutions on Dec. 15, 2010. Since then, the company has experienced so much success that their current site is no longer taking orders until the previous ones have been processed, suggesting a large volume of sales. For Cottle, the device has always been about “allow[ing] people to have fun at a price that they can afford.”

It went on to explain the manner in which the device was used and found that the “’bump –stock’ is a firearm part and not regulated as a firearm.”

Before launching, the company asked the Firearms Technology Branch (FTB) of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to evaluate the device. Interestingly, the request stated that the purpose of the bump stock was “to assist persons whose hands have limited mobility to ‘bump–fire’ an AR–15 type rifle.” The FTB issued a letter that the device had no “automatically functioning mechanical parts or springs and perform[ed] no automatic mechanical function when installed.” It went on to explain the manner in which the device was used and found that the “’bump –stock’ is a firearm part and not regulated as a firearm.” Current federal law allows parts to be attached to firearms as long as they do not “alter the function of rifles or convert them into automatic weapons.” In fact, the ATF has since issued memos in 2011 and 2013 that state existing gun laws do not “provide sufficient authority to deem bump stocks illegal.”

Although Cottle has a successful “bump–stock” device for purchase on the market currently, he was not the first person to come up with the concept for the device. A man named Bill Akins designed an attachment that allowed “bump–firing.” He received a patent in 2000 and sold the device as the “Akins Accelerator.” After the device was on the market for quite some time, however, the ATF reversed their decision on the “Akins Accelerator.” The ATF noted in 2006 that the tested device had caused the gun to misfire, and the “Accelerator’s use of a spring effectively made it a machine gun,” which was illegal. Akins was forced to remove the product from the market and his company failed. This example shows the nature of regulatory prohibitions and how loopholes can potentially present issues down the line.

In the wake of the Las Vegas tragedy, the conversation for gun control has once again arisen, with the same amount of support and opposition that has accompanied the topic of gun control for decades. The National Rifle Association urged the matter to be considered via “existing regulations and not law,” meaning that an existing body, such as the ATF, should make a regulatory change instead of urging legislators to enact new law. This is a measure Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan (R–Wis.) agrees with, stating, “We think the regulatory fix is the smartest, quickest fix.” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.) disagreed with this point when she tweeted, “The ATF does NOT have the authority to address bump–fire stocks – and has made this point clear to Congress MULTIPLE times.”

To date, no developments on the bill have been made, furthering the narrative that when tragedy strikes, Congress is all words and no action.

Sen. Feinstein proposed a bill that she announced after the tragedy called the “Automatic Gunfire Prevention Act.” The bill is only 2 short pages and clearly is intended to restrict bump–fire devices. The language sets out that 180 days after the passage of the bill it shall be unlawful for a person to “import, sell, manufacture, transfer, or possess . . . a bump–fire device, or any part, combination of parts, component, device, attachment, or accessory that is designed or functions to accelerate the rate of fire of a semiautomatic rifle but not convert the semiautomatic rifle into a machinegun.” It then exempts government entities from the prohibitions of the first subsection. To date, no developments on the bill have been made, furthering the narrative that when tragedy strikes, Congress is all words and no action.

Despite the tension from both sides, there has been some bipartisan support in the House that suggests there is hope for a potential change. Representatives Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Seth Moulton (D-MA) introduced bipartisan legislation similar to that of Sen. Feinstein on October 10. Their bill would amend 18 U.S.C. § 922, by adding language regarding a prohibition on the manufacture and possession of certain parts, as well as sentencing in accordance with these changes. The language of the prohibition is almost identical to that of Sen. Feinstein’s, except it omits specifically mentioning “bump–fire” devices. It seems to suggest that this bill would be more expansive than Sen. Feinstein’s in that any device that might make a semiautomatic rifle fire at an increased rate is banned, regardless of a “bump–firing” label. Like Sen. Feinstein’s bill, there has not been much development of this bill either, although it has only been about three weeks since its introduction.

October 1, 2017 changed modern U.S. history forever. A tragic event that brought grief and anguish to victims also showed us the enduring humanity of the human race through an outpouring of love and support. These events have raised concerns about gun control once again, and each person has their own perspective on what should be done to prevent tragedies like this from happening again. Within these opinions, legislators on both sides of the political spectrum continue to debate whether new regulations should be drafted or if new laws should be codified. Regardless of one’s stance, it is imaginable that as time progresses in the aftermath of this tragedy, one would want and expect some change to ensure such a tragedy never happens again.

Tommy Harvey III
About Tommy Harvey III (15 Articles)
Tommy Harvey III is a third year law student and serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. He is originally from Atlanta, GA and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Miami. Tommy has worked for the United States Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of North Carolina and the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office in Charlotte, NC. His legal interests include Civil Rights Law, Constitutional Law, and International Law. Tommy is a member of the Campbell Law Trial Team, and serves as a peer mentor as well as the current Vice President and past Treasurer for the Campbell Law Black Law Students Association.