Could Washington actually respond to last week's slaughter in Las Vegas? Perhaps.
'Bump stocks' are an end-run on existing gun regulation. As such, banning the conversion kits would not constitute new limits on the Second Amendment. It's a reality that seems to be sinking in among members of Congress who, for years, bristled at the mere mention of "gun control."
A slew of congressional Republicans were shocked this week after learning Las Vegas madman Stephen Paddock converted his semi-automatic rifles into full autos. At least 12 rifles stashed in Paddock's hotel, which he used as an elevated perch from which to rain death on a crowd below, had been modified into effectively fully automatic military weapons using "bump stocks." The change -- now legal thanks to the gun industry's ingenuity -- meant Paddock could fire more than 400 rounds a minute, up from around 50 with a semi-automatic.
There's some truth in criticism of the anti-gun crowd and its often confused fear of military style rifles. In many cases, leftists react to the firearm's appearance over its function. But it's also true that, unlike your grandfather's deer rifle, a standard AR-15 accepts high-volume magazines. And it's a modular weapon, easily modified to permit incredibly high rates of fire that have no place outside the battlefield.
Congress recognized the latter point in 1986, when, under GOP President Ronald Reagan, it passed the Firearms Owners Protection Act. Among other things, it made illegal the sale or purchase of fully automatic weapons manufactured after 1986. One can still own full autos, mind you. But doing so is incredibly expensive and heavily regulated.
Ownership is, then, rarefied air among the gun set, one that's almost solely inhabited by hardcore collectors. And even that typically wealthy group has a heap of hoops through which it must first jump.
Bump stocks are, in a very real sense, an attempt to circumvent existing law. Buy the semiautomatic weapon. Purchase a wholly legal conversion for around $200. In short order, the shooter has a weapon of war.
Even some of the most conservative, gun-friendly members of Congress -- especially in the Senate -- were utterly dumbfounded that bump stocks and similar conversion kits passed legal muster.
“Automatic weapons are illegal. If that facilitates that, to me it would be subject to the same ban,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, told Politico this week. “If that actually gets on the Senate floor, I’d vote for it.”
Others weren't even aware such technology existed.
“I think it’s something we ought to look into,” said Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota. “I don’t know a lot about them, and I’m somebody who, I’d like to think, is fairly familiar with a lot of firearms and you know, the use of those."
Sen. Chuck Grassley this past week declined to offer his opinion on bump stocks, instead rolling into a discussion about parliamentary procedure. Well, if Grassley's colleagues are to be believed, 60 votes isn't an impossible hurdle in the Senate. Support for the move is growing even in the more conservative House.
“I didn’t even know what they were until this week, and I’m an avid sportsman, so I think we’re quickly coming up to speed with what this is," House Speaker Paul Ryan told MSNBC.
For years, even the hint of legislation that would curtail access to guns or related equipment was stillborn. Even the death of 20 elementary school students in 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, couldn't break the gun lobby's stranglehold on Congress. But Las Vegas could be different. Even the National Rifle Association somewhat relented on Thursday in a statement, saying it would support "additional regulation."
The facts surrounding Las Vegas are so clear, the issue so well-defined that, unlike with other mass shootings, the massacre in Las Vegas boils down to one fundamental blind spot in federal law. No doubt, Paddock could have done extreme damage with an off-the-shelf semiautomatic. But the conversion exponentially increased his firepower and his ability to single-handedly mow down more than 600 concert goers.
Last week's bloodbath in Las Vegas exposed a deadly hole in existing law, one that's too obvious for congressional Republicans to ignore this time.