Massachusetts’ ban on bump stocks seen as step on road to gun control

  • FILE - In this Oct. 4, 2017, file photo, shooting instructor Frankie McRae demonstrates the grip on an AR-15 rifle fitted with a bump stock at his 37 PSR Gun Club in Bunnlevel, N.C. Massachusetts is on its way to becoming the first state since the Las Vegas shooting massacre to outlaw devices that allow semi-automatic weapons to mimic fully automatic guns. The Massachusetts Senate voted 33-0 on Thursday, Oct. 12, to ban the sale of bump stocks and trigger cranks, attachments that increase the firing rate of a weapon. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed, File) Allen G. Breed

  • Kirk Whatley, a firearm instructor, shows off his tattoo at the Norwottuck Fish and Game Club. —SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Kirk Whatley, a firearm instructor, shows off his tattoo at the Norwottuck Fish and Game Club. —SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Kirk Whatley, a firearms instructor, shows off his tattoo of the Second Amendment at the Norwottuck Fish and Game Club in Amherst recently. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Kirk Whatley poses with his truck at the Norwottuck Fish and Game Club. —SARAH ROBERTSON

Staff Writer
Published: 11/9/2017 8:22:46 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Some gun owners and advocates say they don’t see the benefit of “bump stocks,” the devices that allowed a man to speed up the firing rate of his weapons to kill 59 people and wound more than 500 others in Las Vegas last month.

But that doesn’t mean they like Massachusetts’ ban.

“I see it as an incremental attack on our Second Amendment rights,” said Kirk Whatley, a certified firearms instructor who teaches at the Norwottuck Fish & Game Club in Amherst and has over 40 years of experience with firearms.

“Murder is already illegal, so the idea of banning a piece of plastic and having up to life in prison for having one was not very well thought out,” said Whatley, who has the full text of the Second Amendment tattooed on one arm. “It was a knee-jerk reaction.”

Last week, Massachusetts became the first state to ban the purchase, possession, and sale of the devices since the Las Vegas massacre. Gun owners in possession of bump stocks have until the end of the year to turn them over to their local police.

Some lawmakers are proud of Massachusetts leading the way.

“I am obviously very happy that we’ve put into effect a bump stock ban,” said Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick who drafted the House version of the bill. “We took a step that no other state has been able to take yet.”

Bump stocks modify the grip of a semiautomatic rifle, harnessing the gun’s kickback to fire continuously, mimicking an automatic rifle. Also covered by the ban are trigger cranks, a mechanical modification that replaces a gun’s trigger with a spinning handle for more rapid firing.

The bill passed quickly, just one month after the Oct. 1 Las Vegas Strip massacre, and weeks after the first drafts of the measure were introduced in the Massachusetts House and Senate. The law reclassifies bump stocks and trigger cranks as automatic weapons, making the possession and sale of such items without proper permits punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

“I’m glad Massachusetts acted so swiftly on this protection, but there are many more significant federal-level changes that need to be made to ensure that there is next to no chance people will be killed by guns in the U.S while at the same time ensuring that people can peacefully own and use guns for recreation and hunting,” state Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose, D-Amherst, said in a statement.

The law’s passage has been met with criticism by some gun owners who see the ban as a shortsighted solution to a larger problem that will have little impact on crime. Whatley worries that semiautomatic weapons could be next on the chopping block.


But even the National Rifle Association supports some restrictions. After the Las Vegas shooting, the NRA endorsed tighter restrictions on the use of bump stocks, saying the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), instead of Congress, should take responsibility for new regulations.

“The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations,” the NRA said in an Oct. 5 statement.

Lacking serial numbers or any formal monitoring system, bump stocks will be especially tricky to regulate under the new ban. Whatley said government buybacks rarely offer the market value for guns and their accessories, and can dissuade gun owners from turning them in.

State Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, offers a different view.

“There is a segment of society that thinks any imposed regulations on guns is a violation of their constitutional rights, and there is a segment of society that wants guns banned under any and all circumstances,” said Rosenberg. “They have to be willing to listen to each other and come to conclusion.”

After the bill was introduced, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, said he planned to fast-track the legislation, with the vocal support of Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. The bill passed as part of a routine budget bill signed by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito on Nov. 3 in Baker’s absence.

The ban has been on too fast of a track, opponents say. “The first thing that is incredibly upsetting is the lack of process with which this was done,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Massachusetts Gun Owner’s Action League (GOAL).

Apart from a public hearing on the already improved House bill on Oct. 18, Wallace contended that the bump stock ban was advanced with no committee process and no technical input.

He also wonders how he will advise GOAL members who own bump stocks, and is waiting to hear from the state Department of Public Safety, which was instructed to send notice to gun owners of the new ban.

When asked if the matter will face a court challenge, Wallace said, “Anything is possible.”

David Williams, a retired police officer and director of training for SSD Tactical Training in Springfield, works closely with police officers and military personnel to train them for high-risk situations. He said lawmakers neglected to get input from the public.

“I wish that the legislators had gotten the people’s opinion first without making the decision on their own,” Williams said.

Bump what?

Prior to the Las Vegas massacre, few gun owners, and even fewer legislators, knew what bump stocks and trigger cranks were.

“I don’t know one legislator who knew what a bump stock was when it happened,” Rosenberg said.

After the Vegas shooting, Linsky quickly did his homework. He found that no states had laws regulating the bump stocks and drafted legislation to make Massachusetts the first. He argues that bump stocks have no place in civilized society.

“I have yet to find one person who can come up with a legitimate reason for someone to use a bump stock,” Linsky said. “Bump stocks are an attachment to a weapon only useful for killing large numbers of people indiscriminately. It hurts your ability control the weapon and aim it properly. No one needs a bump stock.”

Neither Whatley, Williams, nor Wallace owns bump stocks, they said. Responsible firearm owners have little use for the devices, they say, and see them as a novelty and a waste of ammunition.

“A bump stock, even properly mounted on the rifle, it’s sloppy,” Whatley said. “It’s very difficult to shoot a gun with a bump stock accurately. And most people who shoot guns care about accuracy.”

“I don’t really have an opinion on the bump stock, and the reason why is I haven’t used one, and I don’t care to use them,” Williams said.

Gun owners say the focus on the mechanism itself is misguided. Anyone with intent can shoot a semi-automatic quick enough to kill using a number of low-tech strategies.

“I can accomplish the same thing as as bump stock by looping my thumb through a belt loop and squeezing the trigger,” Whatley said.

The human element

Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock used bump stocks on 12 of the 23 weapons in his arsenal, used to carry out the deadliest shooting in American history at an Oct. 1 music festival. In Texas on Nov. 5, Air Force veteran Devin Patrick Kelley used a military-style rifle among other guns to fire on the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, killing 26.

“A much more serious thing we don’t talk about is the human element,” Wallace said. “Whether it’s mental health or crime, we aren’t doing enough.”

Prior to the shooting, Kelley had been dishonorably discharged from the Air Force for abuse against his wife and stepson. It was the Air Force’s error for not reporting his criminal record to the FBI, which might have prevented him from purchasing guns.

“Let’s talk about the mental health issues in this country, instead of talking about the tools,” Williams said.

Though mental health and criminal background checks are standard via the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database, HIPAA prevents the database from accessing applicants’ mental health records in Massachusetts. It is a loophole many want closed.

Linsky currently has four more bills before the Massachusetts Legislature addressing gun violence, one of which addresses “extreme risk protective orders.” This would allow for a family member or medical provider to request temporary removal of firearms from an individual deemed a risk to themselves or others.


Linsky said he believes states should do all they can to protect people from gun violence. He does not have confidence that Congress will pass laws necessary to address mass shootings.

“It is time for our leaders in Congress to step up and take real action to address the issue of gun violence that is destroying neighborhoods and families across the nation and get out of the pockets of the gun lobby,” he said.

A labyrinth of laws


Last month, President of the NRA Wayne LaPierre told Face the Nation that reform should come straight from the Trump administration, instead of Congress, to avoid letting the bills turn into a “Christmas tree” of Democrats’ gun- control goals.

Some lawmakers disagree.

“It would be better if it was a federal law, and a strong law, so it applies all across the country,” Rosenberg said. “We can’t wait for the gridlock and politics of Washington to pass this common-sense regulation.”

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is advancing a bill that would ban civilian use of bump stocks, trigger cranks, and related devices. Thirty-eight Democrats co-sponsored the bill, including Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey.

In Congress, all nine Massachusetts representatives co-sponsored H.R.3947 “Automatic Gunfire Prevention Act” drafted by Rep. David. N. Cicilline, D-R.I.

“It’s a common-sense measure,” said Linsky, of the bump stock ban in Massachusetts. “If we go ahead and ban bump stocks it will not stop us from pursuing more gun control regulation.”

After a compromise on a similar bill introduced by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, the bill that passed was a scaled-down version of the Democrats’ vision. Linsky originally aimed to ban a broader range of devices that increase the rate of fire in a semiautomatic weapon — a goal he still supports.

“We still hope to perfect language at a future time that would ban other devices that turn a semiautomatic into an automatic weapon, but we had to act quickly against bump stocks and trigger cranks in this situation,” Linsky said.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at

Editor's Note: This story was changed on Jan. 25, 2018, to clarify that Massachusetts was the first in the nation to pass a bump stock ban after the Las Vegas massacre and to remove the inference that all parts of the ban were to take immediate effect.

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