WASHINGTON (AP) — New federal rules would be "the smartest, quickest" way to regulate the device the gunman in the Las Vegas massacre used to heighten his firepower, House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday in remarks that suggested Congress was unlikely to act first.
It remains unclear, however, what if any action the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will take on so-called bump stocks. The agency has said that once it issues a ruling on a weapon or equipment, it revises its stance only if gun laws or the equipment itself have changed.
The bureau decided in 2010 that bump stocks did not violate federal law, and gun statutes and the design of the mechanism have been unchanged since then. Ryan, R-Wis., said lawmakers are trying to figure out why the bureau has allowed the sale of bump stocks.
"This is a regulation that probably shouldn't have happened in the first place," Ryan told reporters. He added, "We think the regulatory fix is the smartest, quickest fix."
ATF spokeswoman Mary Markos declined to say whether the White House or Justice Department could or will compel the agency to re-evaluate its 2010 decision.
Bump stocks can be attached to a semi-automatic rifle to fire continuously, discharging 400 to 800 rounds in one minute. That can transform guns into fully automatic weapons, which are strictly regulated.
The devices were found in the arsenal of gunman Stephen Paddock, who fired from a high-rise hotel into a packed country music festival, leaving 58 dead and more than 500 wounded. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
An administrative ruling that curbs bump stocks could ease pressure on Republican members of Congress, who have overwhelmingly opposed gun restrictions for years. Even with the National Rifle Association saying such equipment should be "subject to additional regulations," a lawmaker's vote to do so might jeopardize support from ardent gun supporters.
On the other hand, the magnitude of the Las Vegas slaughter — and the focus on a device attached to guns, not on the weapons themselves — may be edging lawmakers toward acting on the issue themselves.
Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Penn., said he's "an avid sportsman" who sometimes goes shooting with his wife and pastor after church. He and many lawmakers have said they'd never heard of bump stocks until the Las Vegas shooting.
"Anything that modifies something from a semi-automatic to an automatic seems like it should be illegal," he said in an interview. "I'm hoping and I anticipate that we'll have a good discussion and maybe fix that."
House and Senate bills have been introduced to ban bump stocks. On Monday, Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., introduced legislation that would make their production, sale or use a felony.
Backed by the White House, the NRA — the gun lobby that usually opposes any firearms restrictions — has urged the bureau to re-examine its finding that bump stocks could be sold legally. Lawmakers from both parties have done the same, though many Democrats and some Republicans have gone further and said they want legislation banning the item.
AP congressional correspondent Erica Werner and reporters Kevin Freking and Sadie Gurman contributed.