Could Obama's ATF have prevented sales of bump stocks?

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    Ryan: Congress needs to look into bump stocks

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Story highlights

  • Bump stocks are not federally regulated
  • Republicans want to know more about them

Washington (CNN)Republicans are blaming the Obama administration for failing to regulate bump fire stocks in 2010 -- but it's unclear whether the administration could have prevented the sale of the device that exacerbated the slaughter in Las Vegas earlier this week.

A bump fire stock, also known as a bump stock, is a device that enables semi-automatic rifles to fire rapidly, like automatic weapons. Twelve of them were found on firearms recovered from the gunman's hotel room in Mandalay Bay, said Jill Snyder, the special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' San Francisco field office.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said on CNN Thursday morning that it's the fault of the Obama administration's ATF for not regulating the device. She was specifically referencing how in 2010, Texas-based Slide Fire pitched the device to federal regulators as a new way to assist people with disabilities to "bump fire" from an AR-15-type rifle.
    But because a bump stock is not a firearm, the ATF classified it as firearm part -- so the ATF wrote in a letter that it approved it because it doesn't have any real jurisdiction over firearm parts.
    "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," ATF said in a letter at the time.
    Bump stocks allow semi-automatic weapons to simulate automatic fire but "do not actually alter the firearm to fire automatically, making them legal under current federal law," Snyder said.
    But some believe bump stocks, while legal, violate the spirit of gun restrictions. And lawmakers are now talking about restricting the sale of bump stocks, though it's unclear how legislation would be drafted.
    The easiest way would be to simply reverse current ATF policy rather than institute a ban on the manufacture and sale of the accessories. A request for an explanation on how to do this from the ATF, as well as the Department of Justice, was not immediately returned.
    The National Rifle Association also blamed the Obama administration, but also called for a review of the devices.
    "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 (BATFE) to immediately review whether these devices comply with federal law," the group said in a statement. "The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations."
    House Speaker Paul Ryan told Hugh Hewitt in an interview for his MSNBC show that "clearly that's something we need to look into."
    Ryan's comments come as one senior House GOP member told CNN that enough House Republicans are likely to agree to a push for legislation that would ban bump stocks that something could pass in the GOP-controlled House.
    "There's enough Republicans who are looking for something that they can say 'I did something.' And the bump stock is an Obama policy. That was approved by the ATF in 2010 and 2012, so why would we defend that?"
    In his comments, Ryan said that he -- like a lot of members of Congress -- just learned about the accessories in recent days.
    "Look, I didn't even know what they were until this week, and I'm an avid sportsman," the Wisconsin Republican said in a clip of the interview that aired Thursday. "So, I think we're quickly coming up to speed with what this is. Fully automatic weapons have been banned for a long time. Apparently this allows you to take a semiautomatic and turn it into a fully automatic so clearly that's something we need to look into."