One small island of sanity in the generally insane ocean of American gun culture is the near-complete federal ban on civilian possession of fully automatic weapons — machine guns.
The nation got a bitter taste last year of what we'd be facing on a regular basis without that ban. On a Las Vegas night in October, 64-year-old businessman Stephen Paddock sprayed a music festival with more than 1,100 rounds in just 10 minutes from high in a nearby hotel, killing 58 people and wounding a surreal 851. No, he didn't have a machine gun, but he had the next worst thing: a "bump stock," a simple accessory that effectively turned his semi-automatic rifles into fully automatic ones.
Ten months later, this darkly ingenious device — whose only purpose is to circumvent a machine gun restriction so obviously necessary that even the National Rifle Association gets it —is still legal in most of the U.S. It's past time that changed.
With a semiautomatic weapon, pulling the trigger once shoots one round; with a fully automatic weapon, holding the trigger in shoots round after round, rapidly, for as long as the ammunition holds out and the weapon doesn't overheat. It's technically possible for civilians to legally obtain fully automatic weapons, but the federal restrictions are so strong and the market so expensive that, for most people, they are effectively banned.
But someone discovered that the recoil of a more easily accessible semi-automatic rifle could be harnessed. Thus the bump stock, a sleeve that fits over the rifle's stock. When the rifle recoils against the bump stock, it bounces forward to reset the trigger, then recoils back again, allowing the rapid-fire effect of a machine gun.
Both political parties and President Donald Trump generally agreed on the need to ban bump stocks. Against the carnage in Las Vegas, it looked like a no-brainer. Whatever the Second Amendment was meant to do — and that remains a worthwhile debate — precious few believe it was meant to protect a hunk of plastic.
Congressional Republicans, paralyzed as always on guns, couldn't get themselves to act decisively. At the NRA's urging, they turned it over to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which now is poised to ban bump stocks by rule. That's not the same as passing a law. A rule can be undone, and it doesn't make the unified statement from our elected leaders that the moment called for.
But at least it will get these deadly devices off the street. Democrats still are pushing for a legislative ban, but it's going nowhere. Letting the bureaucrats do what politicians won't is the latest testament to GOP cowardice on this issue. Like bump stocks themselves, congressional Republicans are looking more and more like a mere firearms accessory.