What is a 'bump stock?' And would a ban really make any difference?
High rates of violent crime, the real and persistent threat of bear encounters, and the outright lack of armed law enforcement officers in many far-flung communities: these are some of the reasons Alaska is gun country, a place where carrying a firearm is nothing out of the ordinary.
Still, even many gun enthusiasts in the Last Frontier until yesterday had never heard a "bump stock," the accessory now in the crosshairs of policymakers since it was used earlier this week by Stephen Paddock to kill 58 and injure hundreds attending a concert in Las Vegas.
The devices replace standard stocks attached to popular semi-automatic firearms like AK-47 and AR-15 rifles. The key difference is that the bump enables a shooter to use the recoil of the weapon to quickly re-engage the trigger, leading to many more shots fired than otherwise possible. Even with the accessory installed and a lot of practice, gun enthusiasts tell Channel 2 News the rate of fire is still noticeably slower than machine guns, the common name for fully-automatic weapons.
Civilians are not allowed to possess any machine gun manufactured after 1986, when the Firearm Owners' Protection Act passed, a law that also enacted strict regulations for possession of pre-1986 guns that fire many shots with a single pull of the trigger.
Because of the ban on modern automatic guns, decades-old weapons now sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Even if someone has the cash laying around for a gun that has little practical application, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has a lengthy application and background check process to obtain a machine gun. For example, people with domestic violence convictions cannot possess the weapons.
This is the backdrop for bump stocks, most commonly produced by the Texas company Slide Fire.
Jeremiah Cottle, the company's founder, had just recovered from a brain injury that cut short his Air Force career and was out shooting with a friend in his hometown, NBC News reported.
"We weren't able to fire as fast as we wanted," Cottle told The Albany News of Texas in 2011. "We couldn't afford what we wanted -- a fully automatic rifle -- so I started to think about how I could make something that would work and be affordable."
That was the impetus for development of the flimsy plastic contraption that costs a couple hundred bucks and was seen by many gun enthusiasts as a gimmick, a shooting range toy, until it ended up attached to a dozen or more rifles found with Paddock in Mandalay Bay Hotel after he carried out the worst massacre in modern U.S. history.
While mass killings occur regularly in the U.S., typically carried out in full or in part with firearms, the loss of American lives in the Nevada incident was more comparable to some of the deadliest battles in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars than other shootings.
Channel 2 News contacted several gun stores and shooting range managers on Thursday. Most declined to be identified by name, preferring to avoid any association with the controversial subject. But the general manager of one range and two gun store employees said they had never heard of bump stops until this week.
Congressman Don Young declined to comment on the issue when contacted by a reporter, but Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan each said they also had never heard of bump stocks until now.
"As someone who has extensive experience with firearms and weapon systems, he had never heard of a 'bump stock' until yesterday," a spokesperson for Sullivan, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, said in a statement. "He's still evaluating legislation related to it."
Steven Untiet has owned Alaska Custom Firearms in South Anchorage for more than a decade. He occasionally sells the devices but never shoots with them.
"They're dumb. They're only good for turning money into noise. I like to hit what I aim at," Untiet said in an interview. "The Marine in me says you've got to hit what you're aiming at every time."
According to Untiet, the problem is that there is no good way to keep the rifle steady when you rely on the recoil to allow rapid bursts.
Americans have far more guns than citizens of any other country, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and we also have a much higher rate of mass shootings.
Jaclyn Schildkraut of the State University of New York and H. Jaymi Elsass of Texas State University have been collecting and analyzing mass-shooting incidents in 11 countries, covering the period from 2000 to 2014, according to PolitiFact.
The researchers found that the U.S. had 133 mass shootings over that time period, more than the other 10 nations combined. Germany, with six shootings, had the second most.
Still, Congress has long been wary of changing the rules of gun ownership.
Untiet, the gun store owner, in a Thursday interview reflected the commonly held belief that new rules and restrictions would do little to turn the tide.
"If I'm not mistaken, it's illegal to shoot up a bunch of people already. There's a law. It didn't seem to do a damn thing," he said. "If I'm hellbent on breaking the law, another law is going to stop me. It doesn't make any sense to me at all."
California Sen. Diane Feinstein sees it differently: "The only reason to modify a gun like this is to kill as many people as possible in as short of a time as possible," the Democrat told reporters, explaining why she has a bill to bar the sale, manufacture, and possession of bump stocks and similar devices that enable extreme rapid fire of semi-automatic weapons.
Perhaps more surprisingly, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and the National Rifle Association -- the lobbying organization that has significant sway over gun laws -- on Thursday indicated a willingness to accept stricter regulation of Slide Fire devices and similar ones.
"The NRA believes that devices intended to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations," Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox, the NRA's top leaders, said in a statement.
Critics, including CNN's Chris Cillizza, argue that the NRA is taking the position only to deflect the possibility of even more restrictive measures.
"The NRA, as has been revealed through its many legislative victories on gun matters over the years, is not dumb," Cillizza wrote. "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."