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Ex-ATF officials says bump-stock OK was mistake
WASHINGTON — In 2013, an ATF official signed a letter to a member of Congress saying that two bump stock devices examined by bureau technicians “are not subject to the provisions of federal firearms statutes” and are therefore legal.
Now, three months after one such device was used to kill 58 in a mass-shooting in Las Vegas and more than a week since the Parkland, Fla., high school massacre, the author of that letter says the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was wrong to OK the devices in the first place.
“I made a mistake in signing this document,” said Richard Marianos, now retired after 27 years as an ATF agent, special agent in charge and assistant director. “I relied on (ATF’s) firearms technical branch to provide subject-matter expertise, but now after talking to other firearms experts and reflecting on my own career, anything that fires two or more rounds at the pull of a trigger is a machine gun, and should be regulated as such.”
Marianos was ATF’s assistant director for public and governmental affairs when he wrote the letter to Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., on April 16, 2013.
In the letter, he stated that the two bump-stock devices — the HellFire Trigger and the Slide Stock of Slidefire Solutions — fell within the 84-year-old Federal Firearms Act’s distinction between rifles that require one trigger pull per shot (legal) and rifles that emit automatic rapid-fire bursts (illegal, or strictly regulated).
These devices do “not provide an automatic action — requiring instead continuous multiple inputs (trigger pulls) by the user for each successive shot,” the Marianos letter states.
Marianos, 52, a law enforcement security consultant who also teaches at Georgetown University, now calls such distinctions “hair splitting.”
“If it walks like duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck,” he said in an interview.
Disputed move to ban
In addition to the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, bump stocks landed in the news after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Florida, in which 17 died. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to issue what amounts to an administrative ban on bump stocks, which when attached to semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 enable the weapons to fire like machine guns — typically between 400 and 800 rounds or more per minute.
Democratic senators including Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy have argued a bump-stock ban could only be achieved through legislation.
“ATF has already said it doesn’t have authority” to ban bump stocks under current law, Blumenthal said. “I think ATF could have been more aggressive and proactive and reached different conclusion, but they chose the safer but less-safety minded route. So ATF will be hard-pressed to reverse itself.”
An administrative ban could take years to promulgate through the cumbersome federal rulemaking process and would be subject to further delay through court challenges, Blumenthal added.
The Slidefire Solutions Slide Stock used by Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock is not itself a firearm. Rather, it is an after-market device attached to the mainframe of a semi-automatic rifle. Its flexible bridge between stock and mainframe essentially harnesses the weapon’s recoil power to keep it firing round after round.
After placing the frame on a shoulder, shooters pull back with their trigger finger and forward with their free hand. If done with the proper push-and-pull, the weapon convulses into a paroxysm of fire. Although technically there is a single trigger-pull per shot, the recoil presses the trigger to the finger at speeds exceeding a finger’s natural ability to pull.
Opposition from gun groups
Bump stocks are something of a novelty item and not widely popular in Connecticut, said Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, a statewide gun-rights organization with 30,000 members.
He described efforts to ban bump stocks as “feel-good legislation” that “won’t stop a madman” from mass-murder “if that’s what they want to do.”
Wilson also said a bump stock is not a necessary ingredient from turning a semi-automatic rifle into a weapon that fires like a machine gun, citing online videos in which shooters achieve rapid fire by wrapping a belt loop around the trigger.
After the Las Vegas shooting, the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation called on Congress to hold back on legislating against bump stocks until ATF had a chance to review its approvals of the two devices.
ATF should determine “whether (bump stocks) are lawful to install and use on a firearm under (current federal law), or whether, if they have no function or purpose other than to convert a conventional firearm into an automatic firearm, they are regulated items,” the main trade association for the firearms industry said in a statement last October.
In a 2013 Hearst Newspapers story, Max Kingery, the ATF senior firearms enforcement officer who tested it at the ATF facility in Martinsburg, W. Va., compared the operation of a Slidefire device to stretching a rubber band.
In an interview at the time, Kingery insisted ATF was merely following the law as written.
“We don’t take a position on whether we like an item or don’t like an item,” said Kingery, a Marine Corps veteran. “We simply classify it according to the law.”
Although the U.S. is a gun-friendly nation with up to 300 million firearms in circulation, machine guns have long been frowned upon.
The 1934 National Firearms Act, approved by Congress in the wake of Prohibition-era gangsters popularizing the “Tommy gun,” imposes a tax and strict licensing requirement on anyone owning a machine gun.
A 1986 law effectively banned all machine guns for non-law-enforcement use that were produced after its date of enactment. Only those under license prior to enactment would be considered legal.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy has proposed a legislative ban on bump stocks. Last week, Malloy called the measure “a strong, smart approach to this issue. I strongly urge federal officials, including President Trump, to take a look at our bill and implement similar legislation nationwide.”
After the Las Vegas shooting, Congress appeared ready to make bump stocks illegal. But House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders sidetracked legislative momentum by asking ATF to re-examine its ruling that the two devices were legal.
ATF was in the midst of the review when Trump, after the Florida shooting (in which a bump stock was not used), ordered Sessions to find a way to ban them without legislation.
The ATF has a long history of tense relations with the National Rifle Association. Through the years, ATF critics have said the bureau is loath to cross the NRA in making a decision for fear of its lobbying power on Capitol Hill.
Indeed, the NRA over decades has succeeded in whittling away ATF’s budget and agent force, and limiting its jurisdiction over guns.
Asked whether that long history played a role in his 2013 letter, Marianos replied that he personally never feared the NRA. He said he was simply relying on the judgment of ATF experts in Martinsburg that the devices conformed to the law’s one-trigger-pull, one-shot standard.
“My job was to follow the law,” he said. “I was a law-enforcement officer, not the regulatory police.”
Did the bureau as a whole feel pressure in its decision-making?
“I couldn’t tell you,” Marianos replied. “It was way above my pay grade.”
In any case, Marianos said he now believes that a semi-automatic rifle equipped with a legal bump stock is indistinguishable from an illegal machine gun.
“If you’re in a police car and you hear a pop-pop-pop, you’re not going to ask ‘is that a bump stock or a machine gun?’ ” he said. “Anyone with street experience would recognize that as automatic weapons fire.”Content originally published by CT Post on February 25, 2018.