Politics & Government

GOP tiptoes into gun restriction debate, with NRA blessing

National Rifle Association (NRA) Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre arrives to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md.
National Rifle Association (NRA) Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre arrives to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. AP

The National Rifle Association gave Republicans a green light to review whether a device used by the Las Vegas shooter should be made illegal.

It was a surprising turn for the gun lobby, one of the most powerful organizations in U.S. politics, and it allows congressional Republicans to consider banning the “bump stock,” which authorities believe Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, used to dramatically increase the firepower of his weapons, killing more than 50 people and wounding hundreds.

"The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations," said NRA leaders Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox, as their Republican supporters faced days of pressure to respond to the Las Vegas massacre.

The NRA asked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives "to immediately review whether these devices comply with federal law.”

The statement came after House Speaker Paul Ryan told MSNBC’s Hugh Hewitt that Congress “clearly” needs to look into the device. Other Republicans went further. Though most said they were entirely unfamiliar with the gun accessory until Paddock’s rampage, there was already talk of legislation to outlaw them.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican, said he had not yet written the bill to ban use of the devices or talked to leadership about his proposal, but that it had already attracted “a lot of interest.”

The devices essentially enable semiautomatic rifles to function as automatic weapons, which are illegal. And Republicans, as well as Democrats “are opposed to the blatant circumvention of existing law,” Curbelo said.

Other Republicans said they were writing to ATF to ask about banning the devices through a rule. At the White House, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the administration welcomed a discussion on banning bump stocks and “would like to be part of that conversation."

In essentially endorsing the sentiment spreading among congressional Republicans, the NRA is also giving a pass to GOP lawmakers to pursue action the party will pitch as a response to the Las Vegas shooting — but which Democrats and gun control activists argue is only the bare minimum Congress can do when it comes to reducing gun violence.

Focusing on the legality and accessibility of bump stocks has quickly become the politically safe position for Republicans as they face pressure to do something — anything — after the massacre, the worst in modern U.S. history. Punting that decision to the ATF would be even more ideal, since it wouldn't require members of Congress to take a vote that might put some in a politically compromising position.

The NRA has long been a major campaign contributor, particularly in recent years to Republicans. Two NRA sources told McClatchy that the group spent close to $70 million in the 2016 election, though the group had reported spending a record-setting $54 million.

Rick Tyler, a conservative strategist and staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, said he expects the GOP-controlled Congress to find a way to ban the device.

"I think conservatives are going to have to concede the bump stock had deadly implications here, and it is reasonable to make this modification illegal," he said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who introduced legislation Wednesday to ban the device said ATF wouldn’t be fully able to close the loophole; only Congress can.

“Legislation would make crystal clear that Congress is banning all devices that allow a weapon to achieve an automatic rate of fire,” Feinstein said.

Most members of Congress, even those who consider themselves sportsmen, were entirely baffled by the existence of the bump stock and said they were only catching up on its capabilities via YouTube videos.

But even conservative members said they were troubled by its abilities: “If it makes (a gun) automatic and automatics are illegal right now, there’s a rational debate to be had,” said Rep. Dave Brat, a Virginia Republican and member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Many withheld judgement, but suggested they’d be open to review. Automatic weapons were banned in 1986, but the devices were unknown then, noted Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma. “This is new to me, but it makes sense that something that has that capability should not be allowed, but I’m not saying that just yet.”

And there remains deep-seated opposition to any changes to existing gun law.

“I’m a Second Amendment person, I wouldn’t vote for that,” Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said of legislation to ban bump stocks. Shelby noted that a “good machinist or engineer” could easily find a way around restrictions on such devices.

Democrats were willing to give Republicans credit, albeit with caveats.

“It’s meaningful, you have to walk before you can run,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who has been a leading champion of gun control legislation in the Senate. “Our complete inability to deal with the loopholes in our gun laws is stunning to me so I certainly don’t need the whole loaf. I’d love to see us make progress and I’ll continue to push for more, but that’s a good start.”

Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California characterized the move to crack down on the devices as “more than they’ve ever been willing to do.”As a congressional staffer in 1978, Speier was shot several times in an ambush in Jonestown, Guyana, that preceded the Jonestown Massacre.

She decried that it may have taken the worst mass shooting in history to move lawmakers, whom she accused of being tied to the NRA.

“The NRA's power in this building is a cancer,” she said. “People can lose their lives on blood-stained streets and we have members that shiver at the thought that they're crossing the NRA."

And Democrats made it clear they would fight for more restrictions, as liberals demanded more aggressive action.

"I'm not voting for anything that doesn't close the Charleston Loophole," Assistant House Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn of South Carolina told McClatchy, referring a provision that allowed a white supremacist to purchase a .45-caliber Glock because a processing error did not uncover a record of illegal drug possession until after he had walked away with the firearm. Dylann Storm Roof went on to kill nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015.

Conversations about possibly banning bump stocks come as Republican leaders are still grappling with what to do about a sportsmen's bill they planned to bring to the floor prior to the Las Vegas shooting that includes language on easing sales of gun noise suppressors.

On Monday, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., the measure’s champion, dismissed suggestions that his effort would now be shelved. By Thursday, he conceded he’d heard nothing about his bill's fate.

"I haven't had any conversation with leadership on this, and I really though they would have come to me, which is surprising," he told McClatchy. "I guess I’m going to have to take the initiative and go to them and say, 'What's the deal, what's the plan here?'"

Duncan, who said he was open to talks about banning bump stocks, said he was holding out hope that the sportsman’s bill would come to the floor with his suppressor provision included.

"It had nothing to do with Las Vegas and it would be playing into the rhetoric of Hillary Clinton ... which has been refuted," he said. "But I get the optics. I understand that."

Alex Daugherty, Emily Cadei, Andrea Drusch, Brian Murphy, Franco Ordoñez, Ben Wieder and Katie Glueck contributed reporting. Peter Stone, a McClatchy special correspondent, also contributed to this report.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark