Columbia, South Carolina, has become the first city to pass legislation prohibiting use of bump stocks—gun accessories like those used by Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock to increase firing rates to quasi-automatic speed. After this fall’s mass shootings, regulation of the deadly add-ons has fallen to local governments in the wake of congressional stagnation on the issue. “It’s time for the good guys with guns to begin to pass some really good policy,” said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, a Democrat and a gun owner, in an interview with Reuters.
At a Dec. 5 meeting, the four Columbia City Council members in attendance unanimously and without discussion voted for the measure after a first reading. It passed a required second vote Tuesday by a unanimous vote of the full council. The ordinance doesn’t explicitly ban the sale or ownership of bump stocks, but it does prohibit civilians from possessing a gun with a bump stock or a trigger crank attached. The penalty is a $500 fine, up to 30 days behind bars, or community service. Nevertheless, skeptics pointed out that even the relatively toothless measure might be overstepping the city council’s authority.
The Columbia City Council’s move echoes those of other local governments in recent months. Following the Oct. 1 shooting in Las Vegas, Massachusetts banned bump stocks, joining California and New York, where the use of such devices was already illegal. In New Jersey, a state Senate bill banning bump stocks and trigger cranks was recently approved by the budget committee on Monday, per the NJ Spotlight; it will proceed to a vote by the state Senate. And Tucson, Arizona, tried to adopt a measure similar to Columbia’s but lacked the authority to do so under state laws.
It’s fallen to these local legislators to take practical steps to safeguard against mass shootings that employ effectively automatic weapons because after effusive “thoughts and prayers” and even a few proposed bipartisan bills, Congress has failed to take any substantial action. After no fewer than 12 guns fitted with bump stocks were found in the gunman’s Mandalay Bay room, even Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called for a “regulatory fix.” In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein put forward a ban on bump stocks (co-sponsored solely by fellow Democrats), while two bipartisan measures aiming to regulate bump stocks were introduced in the House and referred to committees.*
But this momentum dissolved, and not one of the measures has made it to a vote. The week of the Vegas shooting, the NRA called on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to “immediately review” bump stocks, and the ATF and Justice Department announced in early December that they were in the process of determining whether bump stocks could be considered machineguns, in which case the ATF would gain regulatory authority over what it has previously defined as a firearm part.
However, the New York Times reports that the NRA’s chief lobbyist boasted about his organization’s call for ATF involvement as a way to “slow down the process,” and it seems the NRA succeeded: In testimony before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on firearm regulations and background checks, ATF acting director Thomas E. Brandon confirmed that the promulgation would likely take months (including a built-in 30-day period for public comment).
In the meantime, the NRA’s agenda has sailed along; the House passed a bill making concealed carry transferrable over state lines, even in states that ban the practice. According to Roll Call, Democratic Reps. Dan Kildee and Dina Titus attempted to incorporate an amendment with “prohibitive language on bump stocks” into the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, but the rules committee quickly dismissed the proposal.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in the New York Times in early November, “The proposed ban on bump stocks, once hailed as a modest step toward bipartisan compromise on gun safety, may be turning into a cautionary tale of how energetic intentions in the wake of mass shootings can dissipate quickly.” Those words have proven prescient. It’s impressive that the city of Columbia has been able to follow through and very telling that Congress has not.
Correction, Dec. 20, 2017: This post originally misidentified Dianne Feinstein as Barbara Feinstein.