The writer of the article below argues that banning ‘bump stocks’–which allow a semi-automatic rifle to become nearly fully automatic–will accomplish little, because similar modifications of semi-automatics are widely available. This will return us to the debate over assault weapon ban, but on steroids, because the debate has become whether military-style weapons that potentially can fire 400 rounds a minute will be freely available.
AUSTIN, Tex. — In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, Congress and even the National Rifle Association seem on the verge of a breakthrough: regulating the so-called bump stocks used in that killing spree, aftermarket devices that effectively turn legal, semiautomatic rifles into deadly, automatic weapons of war.
Whenever the N.R.A. embraces a gun-control measure, it’s worth looking further under the hood. And, in fact, a ban on bump stocks falls into the same trap as so many previous attempts at “sensible” gun control have — it treats a symptom, but not the disease. As with the assault-weapons ban, it’s not how the gun looks that matters; it’s how it works.
While the Las Vegas massacre was remarkable for its spree of fire, it fit a pattern: Many mass shootings involve rifles designed for automatic fire for the military, the design of which has then been modified to operate as legal, semiautomatic weapons for the civilian market — the AR-15, related to the military’s M-16, being the most famous, but not the only, example.
Civilian ownership of machine guns, which fire continuously as long as the trigger is pulled, has been restricted in the United States since 1934. But their semiautomatic equivalents, which fire just once with each pull of the trigger but to a casual observer look no different from the military versions, have become wildly popular. At my local gun store Thursday, there were as many semiautomatic, military-style weapons as anything; indeed, more than traditional deer-hunting guns shaped from steel and walnut. A beautiful Brazilian over-and-under shotgun-rifle combination sat in a corner, underpriced and apparently unloved. (I personally don’t understand it; having been issued an M-16 by Uncle Sam in the summer of 1983, I cannot think of another firearm I’d less like to lug into the woods on the first day of hunting season.)
But again, aesthetics don’t matter. And while most gun owners might be happy with keeping their rifles as semiautomatic, the proliferation of modification kits, books and YouTube videos demonstrates that many are eager to effectively convert them to automatics. Bump stocks are just the cheapest, simplest way to make a semiautomatic rifle act like an automatic.
Open up, say, a Winchester 94, a .30-30 rifle — a so-called lever-action rifle, popular with deer hunters — and you’ll find about six mostly flat, stamped metal parts held together with springs and pins. Open up an M-16 or its AR-15 civilian cousin and you’ll find something else entirely: a tubular metal bolt, which slides back with the expulsion of gas as the bullet goes off, allowing the spring-fed magazine beneath to pop another round in place behind the chamber; the returning bolt then pushes it into place.
The only real difference between the military and civilian versions is that the M-16 bolt is longer, and the stamped-metal components lock when set to automatic fire, allowing it to fire scores of bullets in several seconds. (Some claim the M-16 can fire up to 700 rounds a minute, but that’s true only in theory; in practice, the rate is limited by magazine size, among other things.)
Or take the hottest new rifle, the HK416, originally designed for the German military. A semiautomatic version of the original, the MR556, is available to civilians for a cool $2,800 and up. I know someone who spent $10,000 on two of them. To sell to civilians, the manufacturer, Heckler & Koch, made fairly minor modifications. Its receiver — where bullet, trigger, bolt and barrel meet — is the same as the military version’s. But the trigger mechanisms inside, known as the trigger group, are attached differently in the civilian version, and a U-shaped metal ledge is removed.
That’s it. There are any number of easy, cheap ways to covert the HK416, or most other semiautomatics. Anyone with an internet connection can watch videos on making an AR-15 automatic. Bored with a semi-auto Chinese SKS? Amazon sells a book, “The Full Auto Conversion of the SKS Rifle,” for just $37.78 in paperback ($17.00 for the Kindle version). There are kits, but in many cases, anyone with a little patience and skill can do it at home, without having to buy anything as blunt or obvious as a bump stock.
True, a good gunsmith will tell you that while it can be done, converting a semi-automatic military-origin rifle to an automatic isn’t necessarily easy. The main obstacle is that you have to make a number of parts at home, and if you don’t mill them correctly, they can break under the intense heat and pressure of automatic fire. But it’s not impossible, and not surprisingly, the sort of gun owners attracted to these sorts of weapons are often the ones with the patience and machine-shop prowess to give it a go.
The only solution, it seems, is to extend the ban on automatic weapons to include gas-powered, semiautomatic rifles that are merely modified versions of their military analogues. Semiautomatic pistols, which don’t meet that criteria and are hard to convert, would be unaffected, as would shotguns, bolt-action rifles and lever-action rifles. But after Las Vegas, we can’t close our eyes to the ease with which someone can unleash automatic weapon fire on a crowd of people. Nor can we pretend that banning just one conversion technique will solve the problem.