Bump Stocks Will Soon Be Illegal, But That's Not Stopping Sales

Feb 4, 2019

There's a countdown clock on the website for RW Arms, a Texas-based seller of firearms accessories. It tracks the days, hours, minutes and seconds until they're no longer permitted to sell bump stocks, devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to fire almost as fast as illegal machine guns.

Promotional emails from RW Arms also include the countdown clock, urging customers to "order now" to "enjoy this unique firing experience" while they can.

Bump stocks are mostly a novelty, used by people who want to experience firing a gun at machine-gun speeds. But in 2017, a gunman used bump stocks to fire into a crowd in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds. The incident caused the administration to reexamine the legality of the devices, and in December it announced the ban.

RW Arms' sales pitch does not dwell on the fact that, by March 26, its customers will have to destroy or hand in any bump stocks they buy. In fact, no bump stocks will be "grandfathered in." The new federal rule reclassifies them all as "machine guns," no matter when they were purchased, and owning one will become a felony.

But it's anyone's guess how many people will dispose of their bump stocks. About half a million of the devices have been sold since 2010, and so far relatively few have been turned in to authorities — even in the handful of states that banned them before the federal rule came out in December.

One reason may be a lingering hope that the ban will be reversed. Gun rights activists have filed several lawsuits, accusing the government of bowing to political pressure when the ATF reversed its earlier findings that bump stocks were legal.

Tim Harmsen is a bump stock owner and one of the plaintiffs in a suit filed by Gun Owners of America.

"The issue for me is government overreach," he says. "The executive branch just said, 'Hey, we want you, basically ATF, an agency, to rewrite, reinterpret federal law so that we can get the outcome we want.'"

Harmsen is a firearms expert with a social media following and YouTube channel. He says he's not about to encourage anyone to break the law, but he predicts some people will, as they did with earlier bans on extended ammunition magazines.

"We have all sorts of people historically, when things like this happen, that just turn to peaceful non-compliance, and I think you may see some of that as well in our community," Harmsen says.

The lawsuits also object to the fact that the new rule effectively deprives people of their property — bump stocks cost anywhere from about $180 to $500 — without compensation.

"ATF has given 90 days here to either turn in your bump stock, or smash it with a hammer and throw it away," says Rob Olson, the Gun Owners of America lawyer. "Every day that we tick closer to 90 days the average gun owner is going to not want to run the risk," he says, as people feel growing pressure to get rid of the devices.

Olson hopes to relieve that pressure by getting a preliminary court order suspending the ban — and the countdown to March 26.

The ATF would not comment on why the new rule delays implementation of the ban for 90 days. The agency referred NPR's questions to the Department of Justice, which didn't reply to requests for an interview.

Former ATF officials say it's customary to include a 30 or 60-day implementation period on a ruling like this, but they say it's unusual for the agency to allow the continued sales of a firearm accessory that will soon be illegal to own.

RW Arms would not agree to an interview with NPR, but it emailed a response to the question of whether its customers were buying bump stocks with the understanding that they would have to get rid of them by March 26.

"We cannot speak on behalf of our customers. Certainly there are customers who are disappointed with the move to ban bump stocks. However, we do not have any indication as to what they will do should the ban take effect on March 26th, as planned. RW Arms will fully comply with the law, and we are prepared to direct our customers to do the same."

Joe Vince is a former ATF special agent, now a consultant on gun crime analysis. He believes the agency included a 90-day delay in implementation "because the gun lobby is so powerful."

He says ATF enforcement has been hollowed out, and people who keep their bump stocks are unlikely to be caught.

But only if they're quiet about it. Vince says they'd be ill-advised to shoot with their illegal bump stocks in places where someone else might hear them.

"If you go to use this, and somebody says, 'Nah, that's not semi-automatic fire, that's fully automatic,' there's going to be somebody out there to check on it." Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.