Breaking with years of intransigence, the nation’s largest gun-rights group on Thursday announced a rare but limited concession to those who would put in place new limits on firearms.
On its own, the face-saving move is inconsequential. Yet it offers the question if, perhaps, the deadly rampage this week in Las Vegas may have been able to wrest loose inertia that paralyzed policymakers after similar carnage in Orlando; Newtown, Conn.; and Blacksburg, Virginia. Could something actually change this time?
The answer is yes, but not really.
The National Rifle Association endorsement of restrictions to add-ons that effectively turn semi-automatic weapons into functional automatic ones clears the way for Congress and the White House to pursue a crackdown without fear of retribution from the outside force. Lawmakers from both parties were already heading toward this outcome, which while symbolically potent has little impact on most of the almost daily mass shootings in the country. Even so, any blink from the NRA is remarkable for an organization that responded after 26 people were killed at a Connecticut elementary school with the claim “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
The tone was markedly different on Thursday. “The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations,” the powerful lobbying group said in a statement.
In question are specific devices called “bump stocks.” The gadgets let guns fire bullets more quickly. The cost is twofold: less than $300 in cash and wildly inaccurate shots. Gun enthusiasts say the devices are novel, but do little to help true sportsman hit their target.
The concession comes just days after a gunman opened fire on a concert crowd in Las Vegas, killing at least 58 people. Police say 12 of the guns 64-year-old Stephen Paddock had in his hotel suite were outfitted with add-on devices. Perhaps, investigators posit, the technology helped him fire hundreds of hundreds of bullets down from 32nd-floor perch.
Lawmakers in Washington were ready to respond. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California introduced legislation that would crack down on the devices that accelerate how quickly guns can fire bullets. Her proposal had the support of 38 Democrats, although no Republicans had come forward as co-sponsors.
Unlike previous moments that followed crisis, Republicans indicated they were open to changes, or at least not vehemently opposed. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said he wasn’t sure what bump stocks were before the Las Vegas shootings, seemed open to working across the aisle to restrict the gadgets. Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a second-term lawmaker from Florida, was working on a version of Feinstein’s legislation to get the ball rolling in the House.
The moves, which drew polite indifference from the NRA, would not have much of a sweeping impact, truth be told. Before the killer used it to modify his weapons, few had heard of the relatively obscure add-on. Sportsmen didn’t find them particularly useful because, while they speed up how many bullets can pass through the barrel of a gun, they make the weapons highly unreliable. Even so, as a ban was rumored, gun shops were selling out of them as enthusiasts rushed to buy one before they were illegal.
The NRA’s statement all but guarantees some version of the ban would be quick to head to President Trump’s desk for signature. The NRA, which backed Trump with $50 million in last year’s election, for years has resisted any new limitations as a slippery first step toward broader restrictions. On this one, they seemed resigned that something was going to happen. The gadget ban seemed to make little difference to their broader goal of defending the rights of gun owners.
Yet so little of the landscape changes if bump stocks are trashed. There remain an estimated 265 million guns in the country, and there are relatively few limits on how they are bought and sold. None of the previous mass shootings relied on the bump stocks for their carnage. The shooter in Orlando’s nightclub murders didn’t need anything more than a semi-automatic rifle to leave 49 dead. Neither did the attackers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 or on Virginia Tech’s campus in 2007. Lacking a gadget to speed up the firing won’t stop the next murderer.
Instead, the value in the ban is a symbolic one. At this moment, voters are looking for anything, really, that might suggest they aren’t as vulnerable as the blood-soaked Vegas Strip proved. The NRA decided to let them have that one win.