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Don’t Let the NRA Control the Conversation

After the massacre in Las Vegas, CEO Wayne LaPierre said "bump stocks" should be regulated. Here's what the pro-gun group is really up to.

Spencer Platt/Getty

In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre on Sunday, when Stephen Paddock gunned down 58 people and wounded hundreds more, the National Rifle Association did what it always does. The nation’s leading gun rights group went dark for a few days—not out of respect for the dead, but to wait for the anti-gun outrage to subside and hone its political strategy. Then, on Thursday, the organization did something unexpected: calling for increased regulation of “bump stocks,” legal gun attachments found on twelve of the rifles in Paddock’s hotel room. “The National Rifle Association is calling on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives [ATF] to immediately review whether these devices comply with federal law,” the NRA said in a statement. “The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations.”

Much of the press treated this move as a surprisingtwist in the NRA’s post-tragedy script and a breakthrough in the gun-control debate. CBS News called it “a big deal” because the NRA has spent the past four decades taking “a maximalist approach to the gun debate, and has opposed just about every single gun control measure proposed in that time.” VICE News reported that “Democrats, Republicans, and now—believe it or not—even the National Rifle Association is calling for bump stocks to be more heavily regulated.” (“You know it’s getting real when the NRA says something gun-related needs to be regulated,” VICE subsequently tweeted.) CNBC’s Christina Wilkie tweeted:

Lost in all of this astonishment is the fact that regulating bump stocks would have a negligible effect on America’s epidemic of gun violence. As Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and one of the leading gun control advocates on Capitol Hill, told me on Friday, “This really does little to nothing for the daily gun violence that plagues our country.” Shannon Watts, who founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America after the 2012 Newtown shooting in Murphy’s home state, noted that this week’s massacre was “the only mass shooting I’ve ever heard of that involves a bump stock.” As of Monday, there have been 521 mass shootings in the U.S in 2017, according to The New York Times.

What’s more, it’s not even clear what the NRA is specifically calling on the ATF to do. (The group did not reply to a request for comment.) “We didn’t say ban,” CEO Wayne LaPierre made clear to Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Thursday night. “We didn’t say confiscate.” As The New York Times and many others have noted, the ATF “has ruled that bump stocks do not violate laws that tightly limit ownership of machine guns.” As NBC News explains:

The National Firearms Act, which regulates automatic weapons (called machine guns in the law), mechanically rather than by how rapidly they shoot. “The term ‘machine gun’ means any weapon which shoots...automatically more than one a single function of the trigger,” the law states.

But bump stocks leave the mechanics of a gun untouched and the trigger is still technically activated on each shot, just at a much faster rate than is humanly possible without the modifications.

That leaves the ATF with little choice but to deem bump stocks legal under current law, said David Chipman, a former ATF agent.

The NRA’s apparent concession to gun control is instead a ruse with myriad goals— what The Daily Beast’s Gideon Resnick and Sam Stein described as “a master-class of misdirection” that wasn’t really about “acquiescing to political pressures so much as trying to shape them in their favor.”

For starters, the statement makes the NRA seem open to compromise, despite its extremist, absolutist stance on guns. “It’s a complete and utter straw man, and no one should be fooled by it,” Watts said. “I would be aghast at any pundit or person in the media who thought this was somehow a harbinger of moderation on the NRA’s part.” On the contrary, she said, the group’s political strategy is “par for the course for gun lobby, which is to be unabashedly craven.”

The statement is also a means of controlling the conversation. As ThinkProgress put it, “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.” Indeed, the fact that Washington is debating bump stocks rather than assault weapons shows just how far the political needle has moved in the NRA’s favor since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, when measures to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines failed in the Senate.

By appealing to the ATF, the NRA is hoping to avoid a fight in Congress, where some Republicans have expressed openness to banning bump stocks. “The move by the influential gun lobby,” Politico reported, “is designed to head off a messy gun control debate in Congress. Officials with the group have told Capitol Hill Republicans and Trump administration officials they would prefer a new rule or regulations from ATF, rather than hastily cobbled together legislation. The NRA and its allies in the gun-rights movement want to avoid the airing in Congress of controversial issues such as universal background checks on gun sales, a ban on assault weapons and limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines.” Murphy told me, “I think they fear they’d lose a legislative fight,” while Watts thinks the NRA’s stance “gives Republican lawmakers political cover” to pursue the rest of their pro-gun agenda.

To wit, the NRA in its statement called on Congress instead “to pass National Right-to-Carry reciprocity, which will allow law-abiding Americans to defend themselves and their families from acts of violence.” This legislation, which would effectively expand concealed carry nationwide, is “the most important item on its legislative agenda. National Right-to-Carry reciprocity would force states to recognize concealed-carry permits issued by all other states,” CBS reported. In using the Las Vegas moment to push concealed carry, Watts said, the NRA is “exploiting a mass shooting to promote and pimp their own priority legislation that would endanger more Americans.... I think the NRA leaders sat in a room for three days and thought about how they could profit off this national tragedy—just like they did after Sandy Hook. They are not coming to the table. They are not moderating their stance.”

This is not to say that a ban on bump stocks—a niche product though it is—wouldn’t represent a modicum of progress in the right direction. “The [NRA’s] paragraph on bump stocks was reasonable within a wildly unreasonable statement,” Murphy told me. David Chipman, a senior policy advisor for Americans for Responsible Solutions, said he’s willing to support “anyone who is willing to call out that this is a dangerous device in the wrong hands.” But he added, “We all suffer from such low expectations of groups and our representatives that we’re grateful for them just doing anything.... If there’s any American out there who believes that merely having the ATF reclassify this one device will keep America safe from gun violence, they’re wrong.”