The federal government collected fewer than 1,000 bump stocks during the run-up to a new ban in March, despite estimates that hundreds of thousands of the devices that mimic machine gun fire are in circulation, according to federal data provided to The Washington Times by the Justice Department.
As the nation marked the second anniversary Oct. 1 of the Las Vegas massacre, which prodded the Trump administration to ban bump stocks, the numbers offer a cautionary tale on the scope and resources needed to enforce any sort of gun buyback program.
Between the issuance of the final rule banning the devices in December 2018 and April 4, 2019, shortly after the prohibition took effect in late March, 582 bump stocks were “abandoned” to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to Justice Department records, and 98 bump stocks were kept as evidence.
The Times obtained the records through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The administration cited estimates that 280,000 to 520,000 bump-stock-type devices were in circulation when it published the final rule in December.
The devices, which attach to semi-automatic weapons to mimic the rate of machine-gun fire, gained prominence after the Las Vegas shooting. Authorities said the gunman used bump stocks to rain fire on concertgoers, killing more than 50 people.
The Justice Department has resisted releasing the number of bump stocks people have turned in to the federal government, saying it paints an incomplete picture of compliance with the ban.
People could destroy the devices themselves or turn them in to other law enforcement agencies, ATF spokeswoman April Langwell said.
Asked whether the numbers have increased or decreased in recent months, Ms. Langwell said, “The rule went into effect as of March 26th, so obviously April 4th was even a few days beyond the deadline.”
She said the 98 devices that were held for “evidence” were turned over by people who said they wanted them back if the ban was successfully blocked in the courts.
RW Arms, a Texas firearms company, made a public display of destroying more than 73,000 of the devices in March under the supervision of federal agents.
The Washington State Patrol reported in late March that about 1,000 bump stocks were turned in as part of a local buyback program before funds were exhausted.
Still, the 582 number suggests many people are simply choosing to hoard their devices, said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation.
“There’s a significant feeling of ‘will not comply’ with gun confiscation-type laws on one hand, and on the other hand quite honestly, most gun owners probably don’t know that you were supposed to turn them in or destroy them and so they’re just keeping them anyway,” Mr. Gottlieb said.
“I’ve traveled around the country since this was put into effect, and I don’t know anybody that had one that turned one in,” he said.
Gun rights advocates suggested in the run-up to the March 26 deadline that owners hold on to the devices as legal challenges to the rule played out in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court turned aside several of those challenges near the time the ban took effect.
The ban could be seen as something of a smaller-scale “trial run” for what the federal government would have to do under a mandatory ban and buyback of certain military-style, semi-automatic firearms along the lines of what Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke is advocating, said Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland.
“I think it does have some implications for that,” said Mr. Spitzer, who has written extensively on the politics of gun control. “On its face, it’s not clear how any kind of mandatory program would work.”
Mr. Gottlieb agreed.
“It telegraphs, quite frankly, that if a Beto O’Rourke-type confiscation scheme ever got passed, that at best they’d have a fractional percent of people actually turning them in,” he said.
Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America, predicted that the compliance rate would be even worse if the government ever bans actual firearms, rather than accessories such as bump stocks.
“Trump’s ban will not garner one vote from the anti-gun left but may work to lose supporters from his base,” Mr. Pratt said. “The big danger, as we argue in our lawsuit which is now in the 6th Circuit Court, is that this ban opens the door to banning all semi-automatic rifles.”
Democrats, though they supported a ban on the devices, warned that Congress should pass legislation and that a new administrative rule could get tied up in the courts.
The administration ruled that bump stocks effectively operated as machine guns, though the ATF ruled during the Obama and George W. Bush administrations that they were not machine guns and therefore fell outside the bounds of what the Justice Department could unilaterally regulate.
“We kind of did this quickly, sort of by executive fiat, and this is the sort of problem that you would think might crop up when you do that,” said Charles Rose, dean of the Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law. “The truthful answer is we just don’t know how many bump stocks were turned in or how many bump stocks were destroyed, and that’s because of the way we went about saying that they were no longer legal.”
He said law enforcement has largely been at the mercy of bump stock owners acting in good faith.
“And the problem with that is that the people who possess them who will follow the new law as it’s interpreted are probably not the folks that you were worried about to begin with,” he said.
Last month, a Houston man was accused of illegal possession of a bump stock in what authorities believe to be the first known federal prosecution of such a charge since the ban went into effect in March.
“ATF should continue to publicize the change in law and prosecute where appropriate,” said Andrew Zucker, a spokesman for the group Everytown for Gun Safety.