The National Rifle Association on Thursday gave Republicans a green light to review whether a device used by the Las Vegas shooter should be made illegal.
It was a surprising turn for the gun lobby, one of the most powerful organizations in U.S. politics, and it allows congressional Republicans to consider banning the “bump stock” that authorities say Stephen Paddock used to dramatically increase the firepower of his weapons Sunday night in Las Vegas.
“The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations,” said NRA leaders Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox, as their Republican supporters faced days of pressure to respond to the massacre.
The NRA asked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives “to immediately review whether these devices comply with federal law.”
The statement came after House Speaker Paul Ryan told radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt that Congress “clearly” needs to look into the device.
Other Republicans went further. Though most said they were entirely unfamiliar with the gun accessory until Paddock’s rampage, there was already talk of legislation to outlaw them.
Some Republicans said they were writing to ATF to ask about banning the devices through a rule.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who introduced legislation Wednesday to ban the device, said ATF wouldn’t be fully able to close the loophole; only Congress can.
“Legislation would make crystal clear that Congress is banning all devices that allow a weapon to achieve an automatic rate of fire,” Feinstein said.
Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican running for re-election in a district Hillary Clinton narrowly won, expressed his support for restrictions early Thursday morning.
“As the details of the shooting in Las Vegas have become clearer, it’s evident that action must be taken with regard to devices that modify semi-automatic weapons like bump stocks,” Yoder said in a statement.
“Right now we have strict regulations on automatic weapons, but these devices allow an individual to easily convert legal firearms into an automatic weapon. That should not be the case, and that’s why I will support measures to regulate or ban these types of devices.”
Fellow Kansas Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins joined Yoder an hour later. Sen. Pat Roberts, the senior member of the state’s delegation, in the afternoon joined the chorus of Republicans calling for action.
At the White House, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the administration welcomed a discussion on banning bump stocks and “would like to be part of that conversation.”
In essentially endorsing the sentiment spreading among congressional Republicans, the NRA is also giving a pass to GOP lawmakers to pursue action the party will pitch as a response to the Las Vegas shooting — but which Democrats and gun control activists argue is only the bare minimum Congress can do when it comes to reducing gun violence.
Focusing on the legality and accessibility of bump stocks has quickly become the politically safe position for Republicans as they face pressure to do something — anything — after the massacre, the worst in modern U.S. history.
The NRA has long been a major campaign contributor, particularly in recent years to Republicans. Two NRA sources told McClatchy that the group spent close to $70 million in the 2016 election, though the group had reported spending a record-setting $54 million.
Despite the NRA’s support for restricting the devices, its Kansas affiliate criticized the push to restrict the weapons Thursday morning.
“Accessory bans won’t save a single life. Criminals will always find ways to commit violence. Prohibiting law-abiding gun owners from owning a piece of plastic won’t stop violent criminals,” Moriah Day, the executive director of the Kansas State Rifle Association, said in an email.
“I find it absolutely despicable that the anti-gun lobby wants to place the responsibility for this violence on an inanimate object rather than the killer,” Day added.
Day said later that the NRA’s stance would not change the state association’s position.
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who has received more than $60,000 from the NRA in his career, said that it was “a little too quick for us to decide” on whether legislation would be needed in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting.
“Automatic weapons are illegal,” Blunt said. “I also know there are other ways to modify weapons. I’m no expert on that and I’m trying to find out.”
Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran also said Congress needed to learn more about bump stocks.
Democrats in the Kansas City region expressed a desire for additional legislation beyond a restriction on bump stocks.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who is up for reelection next year in a state Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points, said she wouldn’t shy away from supporting a number of gun control measures on top of a bump stocks ban, including stricter background checks and banning people on the no-fly list from buying guns.
Rick Tyler, a conservative strategist and staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, said he expects the GOP-controlled Congress to find a way to ban the device.
“I think conservatives are going to have to concede the bump stock had deadly implications here, and it is reasonable to make this modification illegal,” he said.
Most members of Congress, even those who consider themselves sportsmen, were entirely baffled by the existence of the bump stock and said they were only catching up on its capabilities via YouTube videos.
But even conservative members said they were troubled by its abilities: “If it makes (a gun) automatic and automatics are illegal right now, there’s a rational debate to be had,” said Rep. Dave Brat, a Virginia Republican and member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Others remained deeply opposed to any changes to gun laws.
“I’m a Second Amendment person, I wouldn’t vote for that,” Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said of legislation to ban bump stocks. Shelby noted that a “good machinist or engineer” could easily find a way around restrictions on such devices.
Democrats made it clear they would fight for more restrictions, as liberals demanded more aggressive action.
“I’m not voting for anything that doesn’t close the Charleston loophole,” Assistant House Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn of South Carolina told McClatchy, referring to a provision that allowed a white supremacist to purchase a .45-caliber Glock because a processing error did not uncover a record of illegal drug possession until after he had walked away with the firearm. Dylann Storm Roof went on to kill nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015.
Alex Daugherty, Emily Cadei, Andrea Drusch, Brian Murphy, Franco Ordoñez, Ben Wieder, Lindsay Wise and Katie Glueck of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed reporting. Peter Stone, a McClatchy special correspondent, also contributed to this report.