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Manuela Tobias
By Manuela Tobias October 6, 2017

Did Obama administration approve bump stocks?

In a rare move, the National Rifle Association issued a statement calling for regulation of the device that turned the Las Vegas shooter’s rifles more deadly, blaming Barack Obama’s administration for its approval.

"Despite the fact that the Obama administration approved the sale of bump fire stocks on at least two occasions, the National Rifle Association is calling on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to immediately review whether these devices comply with federal law," the NRA wrote in a statement. "The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semiautomatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations."

A bump or fire stock is a device that allows rifles to fire bullets as quickly as a machine gun. At least 12 of the Las Vegas shooter’s guns were outfitted with them.

But did Obama approve their legality? Sort of, but approved is probably the wrong word.

NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter pointed us to a June 2010 approval letter from ATF, an agency under executive purview, sent to Slide Fire, a bump stock manufacturer. Spelling out the legal definition of a firearm, ATF’s technology chief John Spencer determined it was not regulated by law.

"The stock has no automatically functioning mechanical parts or springs and performs no automatic mechanical function when installed," Spencer wrote. "Accordingly, we find that the ‘bump-stock’ is a firearm part and is not regulated as a firearm under Gun Control Act or the National Firearms Act."

Bump stocks harness a weapon’s recoil to cause the user’s finger to squeeze the trigger repeatedly, but because they don’t alter the gun’s internal mechanisms, they were considered lawful.

We found a similar 2012 letter addressed to Bump Fire, a competing manufacturer.

But just as these bump stocks didn’t qualify for regulation, two similar devices did.

The difference? The Akins Accelerator and the Autoglove were determined in 2007 and 2017, respectively, to have mechanical parts that enhanced the trigger mechanism, making them by definition machineguns.

"Electrically-driven trigger devices are considered ‘machineguns’ because they are a ‘combination of parts designed and intended, for use in converting a weapon into a machinegun,’ " ATF’s letter to AutoGlove read.

Automatic weapons sales have been restricted since the 1934 National Firearms Act, and 1986 regulations made it much harder for civilians to get an automatic weapon like a machine gun.

Obama administration’s role

Experts in firearm policy were divided when we asked about the fairness of the NRA’s characterization.

Adam Winkler, a law professor at University of California, Los Angeles, who specializes in guns, said it was appropriate to characterize the move as an approval of its sale under the Obama administration.

"Not because they liked it, but because the law did not permit them to prohibit it," Winkler said.

Other legal experts stressed that it wasn’t an approval, but rather a determination that current law didn’t allow for its regulation.

"The statement implies Obama or (U.S. Attorney General Eric) Holder was somehow involved, and that it was an issue that wouldn’t have been approved in any other administration, and that’s technically incorrect," said Rick Vasquez, a former Firearms Technology Branch official who first signed off on the recommendation the ATF could not regulate the Slide Fire.

"We never had any political people come down to our office saying we must or must not approve (the Slide Fire)," Vasquez said.

Obama issued a slew of executive orders promoting stricter gun control, which the Trump administration has been rolling back, including a measure that previously prevented people with mental illness from buying guns.

"I believe (the NRA) were stating that just to point out that this wasn’t some rogue decision made during a Republican administration, which would be more friendly to gun owners, and therefore that when they re-evaluate it, they’re going to have to take a really close look at the law," said John Pierce, a lawyer and advocate for gun rights.

In order to re-evaluate the bump stock, Vasquez said the ATF would have to change the way it interpreted the National Firearms Act or issue new legislation that would allow the device to be regulated.

Our ruling

The NRA said, "The Obama administration approved the sale of bump fire stocks on at least two occasions."

We indeed found two occasions in which ATF, a bureau within the executive branch, decided it could not regulate bump stocks during the Obama administration.

These decisions allowed two companies to sell bump stocks. It’s important to note this was not a statement of Obama’s preferred policy, which called for more regulation of guns, but was what the agency determined it had to do under the language of current law.

We rate this statement Mostly True.

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"The Obama administration approved the sale of bump fire stocks on at least two occasions."
a press release
Thursday, October 5, 2017

Our Sources

NRA, Joint statement, Oct. 5, 2017

Phone interview with Rick Vasquez, former Assistant Chief and Acting Chief of the ATF's Firearms Technology Branch, Oct. 6, 2017

Phone interview with Mark Jones, former ATF special agent, Oct. 5, 2017

Phone interview with John Pierce, a lawyer and advocate for gun rights, Oct 6, 2017

Email interview with Amy Jones, NRA spokeswoman, Oct. 6, 2017

Email interview with Kevin Michalowski, executive editor of Concealed Carry Magazine, Oct. 6, 2017

Email interview with Adam Winkler, law professor at University of California, Los Angeles, Oct. 5, 2017

PolitiFact, "The difference between automatic and semi-automatic weapons," Oct. 2, 2017

PolitiFact, "Trump signs resolution to reverse Obama's executive order on gun control," April 19, 2017

Obama White House, Gun violence, Jan. 4, 2016

AutoGlove determination, Sept. 11, 2017

BumpFire determination, April 2, 2012

SlideFire determination, June 7, 2010

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