Until the media attention given bump stocks in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, most Americans were clueless about a small gizmo that can make a gun essentially automatic.
Indeed, when the Belleville, Illinois, News-Democrat wanted to localize the massacre, it checked out some area gun shops and asked about the device. Alas, proprietors didn't experience any consumer interest in them so don't stock them, as reporter Elizabeth Donald learned. There was lots of interest in the story when posted, meaning the paper got a bump stock bump.
But in the deeply ideological debate over guns, and amid calls in Congress to outlaw bump stocks (even among a few Republicans, such as senators John Cornyn of Texas and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin), it is notable to find at least some consensus in reporting between two outlets with virtually nothing in common beyond having websites and publishing in English: The Washington Post and Breitbart News. Both trace the continuing availability of the mechanism to the Obama administration.
So Thursday brought a Breitbart story drenched in a sense of semi-jubilant (for Breitbart) irony: "While bump stocks are taking criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, it is interesting to note that the devices were approved for sale in 2010 by Barack Obama’s ATF." (ATF stands for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives.)
It noted, "The ATF approved the devices because they do not convert a semiautomatic rifle into an automatic. Rather, they are an accessory that allows semiautomatic rifle owners to mimic automatic fire for short bursts."
It then cited its primary source for the intriguing history of the Obama decision as the Post, specifically a piece about Rick Vasquez, a then- ATF official who signed off on non-regulation for bump stocks, in the process characterizing them at the time as “a goofy, little doodad.”
"As Vasquez reasoned, the invention did not technically alter a gun’s trigger mechanism, as earlier attempts had, with springs, hydraulics or electric current," writes the Post. "So it did not infringe on a law that bans the sale of machine guns manufactured after 1986 and restricts the sale of those made before then."
The history is now germane, given the attention inspired by the mass shooting and since automatic weapons are illegal unless made before 1986 and registered. It doesn't seem terribly implausible to make a case for banning devices that turn semi-automatics into illegal gums.
Some arguably relevant history is left out of both Breitbart and The Post pieces.
In the early years of his administration, Obama was not especially active on gun control. Rahm Emanuel, his first chief of staff and now Chicago mayor, felt strongly that the Democrats' loss of Congress in 1994 during the Bill Clinton presidency was partly a result of pushing an assault weapons ban. Indeed, when he was a congressman and ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he recruited conservative Democrats (anti-abortion, pro-guns) who helped regain congressional control for the Democrats in 2006 mid-term elections (chronicled well in "The Thumpin'" by Naftali Bendavid, now an editor at The Wall Street Journal)
Obama called for a restoration of the ban that had died in 2004 as he campaigned for the presidency in 2008. In office, he didn't push for it in his first term. After the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre and his own re-election, he brought it up again (and, rather ironically, derided Congress for not being on board). But nothing happened.
Now the issue is back on Capitol Hill and clearly a media favorite, at least for the moment. Thursday's efforts include a CNN primer on bump stocks, a USA Today.com op-ed call for banning them (via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel), and what's surely a relevant cautionary note from Politico's "Playbook" column:
"MIGHT THIS FALL FLAT? Sure, the details are very, very important. And betting against the NRA on Capitol Hill in recent years hasn’t been a good bet. The group has a massive war chest and an active membership that it has employed on multiple occasions."