The Department of Justice announced on Tuesday it will effectively ban the possession of all bump-fire stocks through a new regulatory rule.
Senior DOJ officials told reporters it would become a felony to own a bump-stock within 90 days of the new rule's publication. They estimated March 21, 2019, would be the deadline for the public to turn in or destroy their bump stocks. The officials said they would prosecute those who do not comply with that deadline.
"We anticipate that the general public will be compliant with the law," a senior official said. "To the extent someone chooses not to comply with the law, we will treat this as we do with all firearms offenses. We will prioritize our resources to maximize public safety, focusing on those that pose the greatest threat. We will enforce the statute based on the circumstances of the individual case as we do with all firearms law."
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The new rule rewrites current law prohibiting machineguns to incorporate bump stocks. The National Firearms Act of 1934 defines a machinegun as "any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger." The operation of bump-stocks requires an individual trigger pull for each individual round fired. The DOJ nevertheless decided they "initiate a continuous firing cycle with a single pull of the trigger."
Bump-fire works by utilizing a firearm's recoil impulse to help the shooter actuate the trigger more quickly than with traditional shooting techniques. To complete the technique, the shooter holds his finger stationary inside the trigger guard and uses their non-trigger hand to push the firearm's trigger into the stationary finger. If done correctly, the recoil generated from each shot then pushes the firearm backwards far enough to reset the trigger. The forward force applied by the non-trigger hand then pushes the trigger back against the stationary trigger finger causing another round to be fired.
Bump-stocks allow the stock and pistol grip of a semiautomatic rifle to slide independently of the rest of the rifle, which assists in accomplishing the bump-fire technique by allowing the shooter to hold onto the grip and keep the stock pressed against the shoulder. The technique can still be accomplished without the specialized stocks.
DOJ admitted in its final rule that the trigger resets with each shot taken using a bump-stock but insisted it did not require the trigger to be pulled for each shot.
"Specifically, these devices convert an otherwise semiautomatic firearm into a machinegun by functioning as a self-acting or self-regulating mechanism that harnesses the recoil energy of the semiautomatic firearm in a manner that allows the trigger to reset and continue firing without additional physical manipulation of the trigger by the shooter," the rule states. "Hence, a semiautomatic firearm to which a bump-stock-type device is attached is able to produce automatic fire with a single pull of the trigger."
DOJ officials could not explain the apparent contradiction further during the call with reporters. When asked why it believed the determination only applied to bump stocks and not any semiautomatic firearm capable of bump fire even without the specialized stocks, the officials couldn’t explain other than to say the agency only examined the question of the legality of the stocks and not the shooting technique itself.
"The rule addresses bump-stock type devices," a senior official said. "It does not extend to firing techniques that are accomplished without mechanical devices such as a bump stock."
Since the rule reclassifies bump-fire stocks as machinegun parts and the Firearm Owners Protection Act makes the possession of any machineguns or parts used to convert firearms into machineguns illegal unless they were registered before 1986—well before bump stocks were invented—it will be impossible to legally register a bump stock under the new rule. Therefore, the DOJ said, anyone who legally purchased one at any point will be required to either destroy them or surrender them to law enforcement.
When asked how the DOJ plans to enforce the new ban, officials said they had no broad enforcement plans and would consider cases as they come up.
"We have no plans to go door to door nor do we have the resources," a senior official told reporters. "The Department of Justice primarily relies on voluntary compliance by citizens. Most firearms owners are law-abiding citizens. We anticipate compliance with the law. Those who choose not to comply with the law we will investigate on a case-by-case basis. There is not a blanket plan here."
When asked why the DOJ believes the confiscation of bump-stocks without compensation is in compliance with the Fifth Amendment's prohibition on taking lawful property from Americans without fair compensation, the DOJ officials referred reporters to the rule's explanation. The rule itself claims the government can take previously legal property so long as it is dangerous and taking it serves a public safety interest.
"The Department does not agree that classifying bump-stock-type devices as machineguns results in the unlawful taking of property ‘for public use, without just compensation,'" the rule said. "It is well established that ‘the nature of the [government's] action is critical in takings analysis.' The Department's action here, classifying bump-stock-type devices as machineguns subject to the NFA and GCA, does not have the nature of a taking. A restriction on ‘contraband or noxious goods' and dangerous articles by the government to protect public safety and welfare ‘has not been regarded as a taking for public use for which compensation must be paid.'"
Gun-rights groups criticized the DOJ for the ban and how it plans to institute it—some are already taking legal action.
The National Rifle Association pointed out the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives had previously determined bump-stocks to be legal—many gun owners purchased them under that understanding. The gun-rights group said the attorney general should have allowed those gun owners amnesty from the new rule.
"We are disappointed that this final rule fails to address the thousands of law-abiding Americans who relied on prior ATF determinations when lawfully acquiring these devices," Jennifer Baker, an NRA spokesperson, told the Washington Free Beacon. "As we recommended to ATF in our comments on the proposed rule, Congress made it possible for the attorney general to provide amnesty for firearms regulated under the National Firearms Act. The attorney general should have exercised that authority to provide a period of amnesty under this rule."
Gun Owners of America issued a statement saying the rule is a violation of federal law and promised legal action.
‘As written, this case has important implications for gun owners since, in the coming days, an estimated half a million bump-stock owners will have the difficult decision of either destroying or surrendering their valuable property—or else risk felony prosecution," Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said in the statement. "ATF's claim that it can rewrite congressional law cannot pass legal muster. Agencies are not free to rewrite laws under the guise of ‘interpretation' of a statute, especially where the law's meaning is clear."
The Firearms Policy Coalition, Firearms Policy Foundation, and Madison Society Foundation filed a complaint in federal court against the new rule as well as a motion for preliminary injunction seeking to block enforcement of the bump-stock ban.
"In its rulemaking, the Trump administration is attempting to abuse the system, ignore the statutes passed by the Congress, and thumb its nose at the Constitution without regard to the liberty and property rights of Americans. That is unacceptable and dangerous," Adam Kraut, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. "It is beyond comprehension that the government would seek to establish a precedent that it can arbitrarily redefine terms and subject thousands of people to serious criminal liability and the loss of property."