A Philosopher's Blog

Bump Stocks

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 6, 2017

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Listening to audio from the shooting in Las Vegas, many people concluded the gunman had used automatic weapons. However, it turned out that he had used legally purchased semi-automatic rifles that had been legally modified with bump stocks. Normal semi-automatic weapons fire as fast as the user can pull the trigger, but only one shot is fired per trigger pull. A bump stock does not change the way the gun fires, rather it speeds up the rate of fire by using the recoil of the gun to push the trigger against the user’s trigger finger. If a person could manually pull the trigger as fast, the result would be the same—but such rapid pull is not something people are generally capable of doing.

While a bump stock boosts the rate of fire of a semiautomatic weapon, it does so at the cost of accuracy—the weapon bumping makes it considerably harder to aim properly. When used at a gun range, the usual point of the bump stock is to have the thrill of firing an “automatic” weapon and, as such, accuracy is not a major concern. This high rate of inaccurate fire also allows such a weapon to be devastating when it is fired into a crowd of people—the high volume of fire means that people are likely to be hit. In the case of Las Vegas, the shooter had a dense crowd to fire into and accuracy was irrelevant—he was clearly not after a specific target but rather endeavoring to maximize death and injury. For this, the bump stock was very effective. While bump stocks do not seem to have been employed in other mass shootings, the fact that they were used in such a horrific event means that the attention of the media, pundits and politicians is upon them. And, of course, the attention of bloggers. As would be suspected, those on the left are calling for legislation against bump stocks. Interestingly, some conservatives are also willing to consider the matter. Somewhat shockingly, even the NRA seems willing to discuss the subject.

Before thinking that the NRA is acting out of character, it must be noted that while the NRA did seem to endorse new regulations on bump stocks, it opposes new legislation. Somewhat ironically, the NRA also blamed Obama for allowing the sale of bump stocks. Unsurprisingly, the NRA also made the stock assertions that more gun control would do nothing to prevent attacks and that such shooting are due to the mental illness of the shooter. Even the NRA’s endorsement of another review of bump stocks by the ATF amounts to little: the ATF already reviewed the bump stock and determined that it falls within the law. Roughly put, the bump stock does not modify a gun to be fully-automatic, it merely enables an increase in the rate of fire. As such, any change in the regulation of bump stocks would presumably require legislation—something the NRA opposes. This does, of course, raise the question of whether bump stocks should be controlled or even banned.

The easy and obvious argument for legislation controlling bump stocks is that the harm argument: the use of a bump stock allows a semi-automatic weapon to fire at near automatic rates, thus enabling the sort of carnage that occurred in Las Vegas. Bump stocks are clearly not needed for hunting and have dubious value for self-defense. In fact, the inaccuracy and high rate of fire would make them a danger to any innocents in the area where they might be used in self-defense. Their main legitimate use, like that of beer, is to have fun. However, allowing such a dangerous modification to be legal just so that people can have some fun at the range would be comparable to allowing something else that is deadly, but fun for some, to be uncontrolled. As such, controlling bump stocks is both sensible and ethical. Naturally, this principle would need to be applied consistently to anything that is enjoyable yet potentially deadly.

An argument against new legislation is that this move would pave the way for more gun legislation and this road leads to the Second Amendment being eroded or even repealed. This threat to a basic constitutional right is unacceptable, so the bump stocks should remain as they are. The counter to this is that it is clearly possible to have gun legislation while also maintaining constitutional rights—after all, automatic weapons are banned and this is consistent with gun rights. Another counter is to see this path towards more control as a good thing—a feature rather than a bug.

Another concern is that the creation of legislation in the heat of the moment and directed against some aspect of a terrible event could easily result in bad laws. Going along with this is the concern about the actual risk posed by bump stocks. While they do allow a higher rate of fire, there is the question of how much of a difference they make over unmodified semi-automatic weapons. After all, mass shootings have had high casualty rates when the attacker used only semi-automatic weapons. If the bump stocks do not make a significant difference, then legislation would be unnecessary. Since having laws that are ineffective is a bad idea, these bump stocks should not be controlled.

It can be replied that sensible legislation can be crafted if it turns out that a rational and calm analysis of bump stocks shows that they do make a significant difference regarding mass shootings. This principle would, of course, need to be applied consistently—that weapons and weapon modifications that make mass shootings more lethal should be better controlled. It needs to be noted that this principle could be extended to all firearms—but to assume that this must happen would be to fall into the slippery slope fallacy.

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18 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on October 6, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    It’s a spring. Are we really going to ban springs?

  2. DH said, on October 6, 2017 at 6:23 pm

    I think this debate is ridiculous. As I have posted before, I believe that by focusing the debate on guns and “gun violence” merely distracts us from the real issues of poverty, anger, drug addiction, gang warfare, mental illness, and a host of other issues. And yet we are drilling down, becoming even more focused on meaningless and idiotic legislation that will do nothing to solve the problem.

    So I’m fine with banning “springs” as TJB puts it. Let Congress debate it for a year or two, let it influence the next election. Let the NRA and the ATF pose and preen and let it pass. In five years, when we have seen no change whatsoever, maybe we can work on banning the plastic the stocks are made of – after all, the guy in Las Vegas had to carry the guns around, didn’t he? Plastic stocks means they’re lighter and he can carry more.

    On a more serious note, it is no shock that the NRA favors this. It’s really not about fixing a problem, anyway – it’s about politics. And politics is about bargaining. According to CNN,

    “The NRA, as has been revealed through its many legislative victories on gun matters over the years, is not dumb. And the group’s decision to be for further regulation of bump stocks is clearly a strategic move aimed at avoiding any more sweeping or comprehensive attempts at gun control. Maybe the NRA is also motivated by genuine belief that bump stocks are a bad thing and need to be more regulated. But an organization as politically aware of itself as the NRA is never not keeping an eye on its politics.”

    So if an organization as politically savvy about itself comes out in favor of bump stock legislation, that will occupy everyone for quite a long time, and they will have purchased themselves some political capital to use against legislation that they truly oppose, that will have an impact on their members (but not, of course, on “gun violence”). Democrats have made the attack in the wake of Las Vegas that the NRA opposes all gun control measures, and this move takes the air out of the attack.

    Of course, it’s all just a big dog and pony show anyway. Gun violence is down significantly since 1993, while gun ownership is markedly up. Gun homicide rate is down almost 50%, while gun ownership is almost the exact inverse. If we were to drop this stupid “Facebook Issue” and start focusing on the real problems, maybe homicides and bombings and terror attacks and school shootings might really be sharply curtailed.

    Fat chance, I guess.

    Full disclosure – I am not a gun owner, I don’t particularly like guns and have no plans to try to obtain one. I am, however, a big fan of logic, critical thinking, and debate that is devoid of emotion.

  3. CoffeeTime said, on October 6, 2017 at 8:03 pm

    From https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2016/crime-in-the-u.s.-2016/topic-pages/tables/table-12

    Total US Homicides in 2016: 15,070

    Homicides by Firearms: 11,004 (73.02%)
    Homicides by Knives, other weapons, hands, etc.: 4066 (26.98%)

    Of Firearm homicides where the weapon was identified (7,741):
    Handguns: 7,105 (91.78%)
    Rifles: 374 (4.83%)
    Shotguns: 262 (3.38%)
    Of firearm homicides where the weapon was not identified, I see no reason to assume that the ratios change.

    My first impulse on seeing the media coverage was to blame Bump Stocks too. I attribute this to the very human response to hearing of a tragedy, summed up in The Politician’s Syllogism:

    We must do something!
    This is something.
    Therefore, we must do this.

    So, when we hear of something that upsets us, we want to do something. Any outlet may make us feel better for having done something. I attribute about 80% of Twitter posts to this impulse.

    However, apart from DH’s excellent points that guns themselves are not the root of the problem, I think the FBI stats put the Bump Stock issue into context. Bump Stocks may give legislators and NGOs some reason to appear on TV and in the papers for a while, but, as of now, the issue is not a major one, and no doubt if a new law is crafted to ban them, a new implementation of a spring mechanism will be devised to create a similar effect.

    • dh said, on October 7, 2017 at 10:55 am

      Re: Politician’s Syllogism – how sad, but true. I think that’s a big reason behind the creeping control our government has taken over the last dozen decades or so. Politicians run on platforms based on what they will “do”; a platform of “not doing” is what we really need, but will garner no votes.

      To add to the issue, take a look at the “accomplishments” section of any politician’s web site (Hillary Clinton’s Senate tenure comes to mind), and what you will see is a lot of “Funding”. Maybe “funding” is their job, but the only thing it accomplishes is a larger bureaucracy, more committees, more political correctness, and higher taxes.

      Some senator, somewhere, will have a line-item on his/her web site in the near future: “Obtained funding for a bipartisan ad-hoc committee to investigate the impact of a ban on bump-stocks on mass shootings”.

      • WTP said, on October 7, 2017 at 12:18 pm

        “Funding” is just a smooth word for spending. “Funding” sounds more like it’s your money. You can spend other people’s money. Try saying the same thing using the word “funding” though. Just another subtle lie.

  4. WTP said, on October 6, 2017 at 9:56 pm

    Seriously now, do any of you three really expect anything better from Mike? He’s a university professor. The boys in the faculty lounge were probably making fun of him for not having signaled the approved and proper position on this issue. Really, what else could he do?

    • Dh said, on October 6, 2017 at 11:21 pm

      Well, I too am a university professor. While there is definitely a leaning among our ilk, we are still individuals. Be careful about stereotyping.

      • WTP said, on October 7, 2017 at 6:20 am

        I know that. Guess my touch of sarcasm didn’t bleed through.

        From my experience it’s a good bit more than a leaning, though. I have been curious however, are you at a public institution?

        • dh said, on October 7, 2017 at 10:20 am

          I am at a large private technical research institute

          • WTP said, on October 7, 2017 at 12:27 pm

            So, objective standards and such. You and Mike don’t really have that much in common, job-wise. You both stand in front of a group of people and talk. Objectively speaking, that’s really about it. Commonalities that is.

            • dh said, on October 7, 2017 at 1:11 pm

              That’s why I bristle a bit at the hint of stereotyping. We have a slightly less liberal leaning at my institute, due partially to the technical/engineering side of things, I think. It’s a common perception, though. i have a number of relatives in grass-roots America – “gun-totin’, grain-fed, right-wing farmers” who tiptoed around me last time we got together, reluctant to speak up in front of me, afraid they might offend my progressive point of view. All based on assumptions, of course, about my chosen profession. In a previous life, I was blackballed from a more liberal university where I taught for ten years as an adjunct. As soon as I spoke out against their policy of forced union membership, suddenly there were no classes for me to teach … it’s one reason I favor tenure.

            • WTP said, on October 7, 2017 at 1:22 pm

              Well that ain’t right. But that’s more prejudice than stereotyping. A group of people, any group by whatever is the definition of that group, can and do possess attributes, both positive and negative, that one can reasonably apply to that group. To judge any individual of that group by those attributes does wrong to both the judge and the judged. But we also do wrong to a group when we fail to hold them, as a group, to whatever reasonable standards may apply.

            • WTP said, on October 7, 2017 at 1:27 pm

              Also regarding the latter part of your post, that is a problem with forced unions. Don’t see tenure as a proper cure for that. Not that I object to tenure completely, it’s really not my domain to say except as a taxpayer in the context of public universities, but from what I have seen it should be much harder to acquire than what has become the norm.

  5. dh said, on October 7, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    WTP – Maybe in some institutions, but not mine. It took me seven years, with a review in the third. I had to do a substantial amount of peer-reviewed (preferably grant-funded) research and publication, in addition to a full teaching load, thesis advisement (that didn’t count toward my load), and department-level, college-level, institute-level, and community-level service.

    I definitely see the down side in many areas – easy attainment and guaranteed-job-regardless-of-performance, but where I am it is a hard-won reward that guarantees (to a point, anyway) freedom of thought without fear of political repercussion. I serve now on institute-level committees where things get pretty heated. It shouldn’t be this way, but I feel safe in voicing my opinion (which often goes against the mainstream) because of tenure – and I think that everyone benefits from that safety.

    There are definitely full-professors with PhD’s who have long since surpassed their relevance, whose tenure eases them into cushy admin positions where they can do more harm than good, which is a problem. I look forward to those days …

  6. dh said, on October 9, 2017 at 8:59 am

    There is a commentary posted in the Wall Street Journal today, which I think identifies some very salient points.


    In it, David Kopel makes the point, as I have, that exaggerated results and constant repetition of stories cause a large misunderstanding of the issue.

    As many of us have stated, gun crime is down over the last quarter-century in this country. Way down. Down by over half, while gun ownership is up by nearly the same figure.

    Scholars, says Kopel, suggest many reasons for this seemingly counter-intuitive situation. For example, today there are laws (based on uncontested social science research) that would prohibit gun ownership by those who have been involved in domestic violence; there is now tougher sentencing for criminals who use guns in the commission of a crime than there was in 1992. Targeting the people who use or are likely to use guns, – rather than the guns themselves – has proven to be highly effective over the last 25 years.

    Yet, to the point that I have made on a wide variety of topics, a Pew research survey conducted in 2013 indicates that a a very large number of Americans think gun crime is higher today than 20 years earlier.

    “Asked about trends in the number of gun crimes “in recent years,” a plurality of 45% believe the number has gone up, 39% say it is about the same and 10% say it has gone down. (An additional 5% did not know or did not answer.) As with long-term crime, women (57%) are more likely than men (32%) to say that gun crime has increased in recent years. So are non-white adults (54%) compared with whites (41%). Adults ages 50 and older (51%) are more likely than those ages 18-49 (42%) to believe gun crime is up.”

    (Incidentally, as to the 45% who believe the number of gun crimes has gone up, by comparison, Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 with 43% of the popular vote. I point this out only to show how significant a number this is).

    One cause (according to Pew) of public misunderstanding is the widespread repetition of inflated figures about mass shootings. Another (according to me), is the widespread dearth of the ability or desire among Americans to think for themselves and actually seek the truth rather than a political talking point – since the talking points are right there in our faces.


    That’s a very interesting research paper, which goes beyond the simplistic “there are too many guns” rationale for the variation in violent crime rates over the last 50 years, including such factors as access to abortion, reduction in lead paint and the elimination of lead in gasoline, changes in demographics due, in part, to the aging of the Baby Boom generation, the rise in the street market for crack cocaine, and many others.

    Whether we choose to believe the results of the Pew research or choose to counter it with additional facts that express a different point of view is only partially relevant – the point is that this is what is known as CRITICAL THINKING. Thinking “out of the box”. Wondering if there might be other, less obvious but even more pertinent causes for gun violence. Not accepting the mainstream political talking point, simply because all your friends do on your Facebook feed, jumping on a bandwagon because it is full of passionate, albeit misguided people.

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