In the aftermath of the October 1, 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, the Justice Department has proposed a new rule reclassifying "bump stocks" as machine guns. President Trump has condemned bump stocks, and even the National Rifle Association has called for "additional regulations" on "devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles." The new rule would require that all existing bump stocks either be turned in or destroyed without compensation.
I don't own any bump stocks. I have no desire to own a bump stock. I think they're asinine. It's the sort of device an eighteen-year-old male with more testosterone than common sense thinks is really cool. Nevertheless, the proposed ban on bump stocks ought to be resisted. It opens the door to outright confiscation of all semi-automatic firearms by executive order. This is the very sort of abuse that initiated the American Revolution.
Installation of a bump stock does not transform a semi-automatic firearm into a machine gun. A machine gun is defined by statutory law (26 USC 5845b) as "any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger." There is no bump stock in which this happens. Bump stocks merely facilitate rapid fire. Every time a gun with a bump stock is discharged, there is a single function of the trigger. That is why on ten separate occasions, between 2008 and 2017, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives issued letters concluding that bump stocks "did not qualify as machine guns" and were perfectly legal to manufacture, sell, and possess.
Neither is a bump stock required for rapid firing of a semi-automatic firearm. Any semi-automatic gun can be bump fired. Think about what that means. If the Executive Branch of the federal government can arbitrarily declare that a certain type of stock turns a semi-automatic firearm into a machine gun because it facilitates bump firing, the Executive can also reclassify all semi-automatic guns as machine guns, because all semi-autos are capable of bump firing. It's the realization of Dianne Feinstein's dream of "turn 'em all in." If this is allowed to stand, the precedent will have been established for confiscating all semi-automatic firearms without a single law being enacted or even deliberated.
The proposed bump stock ban is also an unconstitutional "taking." The Justice Department wants to compel everyone in possession of a bump stock to turn it in or destroy it without compensation. This is an explicit violation of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits the taking of private property without just compensation.
The last reason to oppose a bump stock ban is the most compelling of all. Please bear with me. There is a lesson to be learned from events that unfolded in seventeenth-century England. In 1685, James II ascended to the throne and decided he was going to restore the British Isles to Catholicism. Among the Protestant institutions that James II intended to subdue was the University of Cambridge. In 1687, Cambridge was ordered by James II to appoint a Catholic monk to the faculty, an illegal act. Under intense pressure, the faculty at Cambridge agreed to a compromise. The Catholic monk would be admitted with the understanding that this was to be a single exception from which no precedent could be drawn. The controversy was apparently settled, when a man stood up and voiced his objection to the arrangement. He said, "This is giving up the question." Singlehandedly, one person convinced the entire body of the faculty to resist on the basis of law and principle. Cambridge fought the king and won.
Who was this moral absolutist who refused to compromise principle? Who was this intransigent iconoclast? You will recognize his name: Isaac Newton, the greatest genius the human race has ever produced.
If we agree to ban bump stocks because they facilitate rapid firing, we have given up the question. We have agreed in principle that any dangerous gun can be banned and confiscated by an arbitrary executive order. All guns are capable of rapid fire, and all guns are inherently dangerous. Pump-action shotguns can be rapidly fired and reloaded. Jerry Miculek can fire five shots from a double-action revolver in 0.57 seconds. High-capacity magazines most certainly facilitate rapid fire, so they also will have to go. A writer who wants to ban all "private individual ownership of firearms" recently argued that "even bolt-action rifles can still fire surprisingly fast in skilled hands." He's right. All magazine-fed guns will be outlawed.
There is no compromise involved or proposed here. In return for a ban on bump stocks, we get exactly nothing – the same situation we have been through now for eighty-four years. Despite the fact that the Constitution forbids any "infringement" of our right to keep and bear arms, we have endured repeated trespasses. In less than a hundred years, we have been subjected to the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968, the Brady Act of 1993, and countless state restrictions on our rights. If we would be honest with ourselves, we would admit that half the Second Amendment is already gone.
Should we surrender on bump stocks? No. Hell no. As a speaker at the recent gun control march on Washington, D.C. admitted, "when they give us that inch, that bump stock ban, we will take a mile." Appeasement only encourages more depredation and encroachment. Never give up your weapons!
David Deming is professor of arts and sciences at the University of Oklahoma and author of the series Science and Technology in World History.