- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The National Rifle Association’s statement following the Las Vegas shootings earlier this month was seen by some as a crack in the organization’s blanket opposition to legislative attempts to undermine Second Amendment rights in this country. Some pro-gun activists quickly criticized the move as evidence that the NRA has gone soft, and anti-gunners like Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi said she dearly hoped the move would put the organization on the very “slippery slope” its members feared.

In fact, the move represented not a softening of the NRA position, but a strategic move to prevent just the sort of limits on gun rights the organization has fought for years from gaining momentum. In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shootings, the usual suspects resurfaced with the usual demands for universal background checks and the like. The target was the same as always: innocent gun owners and semi-automatic firearms.

By pointing out that it was a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms regulatory interpretation of existing law during the Obama administration that allowed the so-called “bump stock” to be brought to market in the first place, the BATF should review its interpretation without any need for congressional involvement. At a practical level, the statement took the steam out of congressional efforts to revive the gun control debate over measures that would do little to prevent such incidents, but would make life more difficult for law-abiding gun owners.

The left was outraged, but had to acknowledge that once again the NRA had managed to outsmart the gun control lobby. As The Washington Post put it, “Make no mistake: This move is an attempt by the NRA to stop a broad public debate on guns before it really begins in earnest. And it almost certainly will work.”

Until Stephen Paddock opened fire on those country-western fans in Las Vegas, few gun owners and fewer American non-gun owners had ever heard of bump stocks or had any idea of what they are.

The bump stock fits over the handle of a standard semi-automatic firearm such as the widely popular AR-15 and essentially converts it into what amounts to a fully automatic rifle or “machine gun.” The sale, purchase or ownership of fully automatic weapons has been heavily regulated in this country since the late 1930s, and it’s been illegal to manufacture such weapons for the civilian market since the late ‘60s. These are regulations with which the Supreme Court, in its decision recognizing that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms, found no fault.

It is not illegal to buy or possess a fully automatic weapon, but those few who want one are heavily taxed, undergo an extensive background check and are monitored to prevent the misuse of such weapons. They aren’t found on the streets and cannot be bought over the counter at gun shows, as some anti-gun groups have claimed. They are expensive and most of them are to be found in the hands of serious collectors.

Some years ago, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey launched a Senate campaign to ban them after alleging that the National Rifle Association was facilitating their sale at gun shows to terrorists and wannabe mass killers. His effort failed because he was trying to legislate against a myth. But before it ended, some enterprising reporter managed to look into the data and found that since the existing restrictions passed in 1939, only two people have died in this country as the result of the misuse of such weapons, and neither death could be attributed to gangbangers or terrorists.

Such evidence, however, has never deterred those with a far broader anti-gun agenda from trying to confuse the public on the issue of semi-automatic versus automatic firearms. Thus, we’ve seen television demonstrations of the firepower of so-called “assault rifles,” using footage of fully automatic machine guns rather than the semi-automatic rifles under attack.

NRA leaders have fought for years to keep their opponents from conflating the two, and they see the left’s continued attempts to do just that as a key to the strategy to ban semi-automatic rifles. The NRA and almost all gun owners see such attempts as a direct attack on the Second Amendment and say they will never accept a semi-automatic ban. The bump stock, which in the minds of the public, exists only to convert a semi-automatic weapon to a fully automatic machine gun, fudges the line between the two in a way that could significantly weaken the ability of the NRA and others to defend the semi-automatic.

That’s no doubt why NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre suggested in his post-Las Vegas statement that a device such as the bump stock, which exists only to facilitate such a conversion, should be subject to the same regulations as the machine gun itself.

• David A. Keene is editor at large at The Washington Times.

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