Trump’s Hollow Gesture on Guns

Experts and advocates on both sides of the gun debate say the president’s proposal to ban bump stocks is more performative than meaningful.

Rick Bowmer / AP

On Tuesday, in the aftermath of the shooting of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, Trump sent a memo to Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordering a proposal to ban bump stocks and to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. But experts and advocates say the move is more performative than meaningful—and the decision is being criticized by gun-control advocates and Second Amendment proponents alike.

“It’s a presidential distraction,” said William Vizzard, a professor of criminal justice at California State University, Sacramento, and a former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives  agent. “It’s obvious that somebody somewhere in the White House calculated that this is not working for them politically, and it’s time to make an announcement without really doing anything that’s going to fire up the NRA.”

After the October 2017 shooting in Las Vegas, where a gunman used semi-automatic rifles fitted with bump stocks to murder 58 concert-goers, calls to ban the devices were deafening; California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill to outlaw them. Even the National Rifle Association made a rare call for further restrictions on bump stocks, saying that “devices designed to allow semiautomatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”

But the legislation stalled, and instead, Republicans called on the ATF to conduct a review of the devices. The ATF had previously ruled on this issue in 2010, when they determined that, since using a bump stock requires the shooter to pull the trigger multiple times, it does not transform a weapon into a machine gun. (A machine gun is defined in federal law as a weapon capable of firing multiple rounds with a single pull of the trigger, and the sale of new machine guns has been illegal since 1986). But now, after the ATF’s recent review, the agency is being asked to reconsider.

According to a pro-gun rights retired ATF official, who called the purported decision “a travesty,” the agency will soon be posting a new regulation that includes bump stocks in the definition of machine gun. The ATF would not confirm the new definition, instead referring me to the Justice Department for questions.

Even if the ATF did issue a ban on bump stocks, experts say it’s not likely to hold up in court. After all, the ATF previously decided that bump stocks shouldn’t be banned—and even sent a letter to Congress in 2013 declaring that “stocks of this type are not subject to the provisions of federal firearms statutes.”

“It’s possible that ATF could exercise that jurisdiction and a court will follow it,” said Vizzard. “My guess is a court won’t.”

Feinstein, whose bump-stock bill went nowhere in Congress last fall, noted this in a statement urging the president to instead support a stronger legislative ban on the devices. “If ATF tries to ban these devices after admitting repeatedly that it lacks the authority to do so, that process could be tied up in court for years, and that would mean bump stocks would continue to be sold,” the senator said. “Legislation is the only answer.” But bump-stock legislation still doesn’t look likely to pass in Congress.

Setting aside the ATF’s role in the issue, experts say a ban on bump stocks wouldn’t be very effective in preventing mass shootings. Bump stocks weren’t used in the Parkland shooting last week, and they weren’t used in the church shooting that occurred earlier this year in Sutherland Springs, Texas. “The bump stock is kind of like a distraction off there on the edge of the page,” Vizzard said, noting that the proliferation of handguns and semi-automatic weapons is much more concerning to gun-control advocates.

David Hemenway, an economist and a professor of health policy at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, agreed. “The [bump-stock ban] can’t hurt,” he told me in an email, but “lots of other policies would be more helpful.” Hemenway and other gun-control advocates have recommended more significant policy fixes, like banning large-capacity magazines and implementing one-gun-per-month laws and gun-violence restraining orders.

On the gun issue, the president is straddling a risky line: In the 2016 presidential election, gun-owning households backed Trump overwhelmingly, and for gun-rights groups, even a ban on bump stocks is going too far. In a statement, Gun Owners of America, a gun-rights group, called the proposal a “gross infringement of Second Amendment Rights” and warned that such a ban could eventually lead to a ban on semi-automatic weapons. “[The ban is] the kind of thing that will make a mountain out of a molehill,” said David Workman, the senior editor at, a publication run by the Second Amendment Foundation. “That’s the concern that not only Trump but the GOP has to look at as we head into the midterms.”

So if the ban wouldn’t necessarily be effective at preventing mass shootings—and might not even hold up in court—why would Trump propose it?

“I think Trump was looking at this thinking, ‘Geez, I gotta do something, these people expect me to take some action,’” said Workman. “The bump stocks are the low-hanging fruit.”