A welcome shift on gun control

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The Trump administration's issuance of a new rule on Tuesday banning the possession of bump stocks is certainly welcome, but even more important is what such a decision signifies in terms of acknowledging a change in national attitude toward gun control. Bump stocks, devices that enable semiautomatic assault weapons to mimic fully automatic machine guns (like the one used in 2017 to kill 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas) have no rational justification to exist in public hands.

In 2010 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms ruled that it could not regulate bump stocks in the same way as machine guns without legislation from Congress. In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting several states — Massachusetts being first among them — passed bans on the devices but Congress, notoriously wary of crossing the powerful gun rights lobby, failed to do so. Following a directive by President Trump after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the Justice Department found a way to reinterpret existing law to include bump stocks. Enforcing such a decision will be problematic, since tens of thousands of bump stocks are already in private hands, but declaring them illegal is an important first step.

The bump stock ban occurs amid the larger context of a gradual shift in public opinion regarding the gun control issue, a shift manifested in the 2018 midterm elections in November. While it is far too soon to declare victory in the battle for sensible gun regulation, the increasing frequency of mass shootings has raised intensity about the issue in voters' minds.

The gun lobby has historically benefited from the passion of a relatively small number of single-issue voters motivated by abhorrence of any encroachment on their perceived Second Amendment rights, but more and more citizens have begun to consider candidates' stances on gun control as an important factor when casting their votes. According to the Trace, an independent nonprofit journalism operation that reports on gun issues, "Democrats [candidates for Congress] earning F ratings from the NRA for their views on gun laws prevailed not only in increasingly bluish swing states ... but also in conservative strongholds like South Carolina and Kansas." In Vermont, where attitudes about gun rights have traditionally been at variance with the state's prevailing liberal social views, Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed legislation after what he called a "near miss" of a school shooting in Fair Haven, expanding background checks and his state's version of a "red flag" law. This impelled the NRA to change its rating of Scott from an A to a D, despite which he won re-election.

These indicators at the very least, along with the developing scandal concerning the NRA's role as an instrument of Russian money-laundering, may cause future Americans to look back at 2018 as the year the nation's irrational love affair with firearms reached its high-water mark. Much work still needs to be done by gun control advocacy groups, and voters must continue to place the issue on the front burner of their voting priorities, but the signs are promising.

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