With federal action on guns unlikely, gun control advocates are increasingly turning to state and local governments for solutions. On July 9 they scored a win in one of the country’s most Democratic states.
Hawaii Governor David Ige, a Democrat, signed into law a bill that bans so-called “bump stocks” in the island state, nearly three months after the state legislature first passed the ban. The ban was partially in response to the October 1, 2017 massacre in Las Vegas, where a shooter using a bump stock killed 58 people at a country music concert.
The new law contains an amnesty provision, allowing bump stock owners to turn in their weapons at any police station for 30 days. In addition, Governor Ige also signed into law a bill requiring individuals who were previously disqualified for gun ownership to turn in their guns and ammunition within 30 days.
What Are Bump Stocks?
Bump stocks became a popular source of concern after the Las Vegas massacre, with the National Rifle Association and even many prominent Republicans – including President Trump – calling for a ban on these devices. These concerns only intensified after the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
The anti-bump stock movement won its biggest and most surprising victory this spring, when the Florida legislature – controlled by Republicans and notoriously friendly with the NRA – passed a bill banning bump stocks in the aftermath of the Parkland tragedy. Republican Governor Rick Scott signed the bill into law, though gun owners quickly challenged the law in court.
The “stock” of a gun is the part of the weapon that is braced against the shooter’s shoulder to provide support and stability. A bump stock replaces the standard stock and allows a semi-automatic weapon to fire more rapidly, to the extent that it can actually approach the firing rate of machine guns (private ownership of which are banned under federal law).
The bump stock “bumps back and forth between the shooter’s shoulder and trigger finger, causing the rifle to rapidly fire again and again,” according to The New York Times.
Federal Action on Bump Stocks
Republicans in Congress – who control both chambers – have made clear that they have no interest in passing a bump stock ban in an election year. Many fear that if they vote for such a ban they will be tarred as “anti-gun” in a primary challenge.
As a result, the Trump Administration is moving forward with its own executive actions to ban bump stocks. In March, the Administration – led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions – announced that it would direct the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to determine it has the authority to ban bump stocks.
Under federal law, these proposed rule changes have to wait approximately four months for public comment and notice. If everything goes according to plan, the bump stock ban should then go into effect in late July or early August.
However, the legal status of a ban put in place through such executive machinations is shaky. ATF has said on many occasions that it does not have the authority to regulate bump stocks (the legal question is whether or not a rifle equipped with a bump stock qualifies as a machine gun under the 1934 National Firearms Act). A ban is likely to face an immediate legal challenge.
A bump stock ban duly passed by Congress would likely stand up to legal scrutiny. However, Congress has no appetite for such legislation, as noted above.
Elections Have Consequences
The Hawaii state senate passed the bump stock ban on a unanimous, 24-0 vote. Hawaii joined Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington as states that banned bump stocks after the Las Vegas massacre.
With the exception of Florida, all of those are states with a strong Democratic presence in the state government, especially in the legislatures. Unfortunately, Democrats took a beating at the state and local level during the Obama years, losing more than a thousand legislative seats between 2009 and 2016. As a result, Democratic influence in state policy making is at its lowest level in decades.
All of which speaks to the importance of the upcoming midterm elections. At the federal level, a Democratic House of Representatives could pass a bump stock ban, putting pressure on a likely Republican-controlled Senate and a Republican White House to sign off on a popular measure they’ve already claimed to support.
In addition, there are many states – such as Colorado – where full control of the state government is up for grabs in the November elections. Strong Democratic performance in state elections could provide gun control advocates with more opportunities to push legislation, even with a hostile Congress.