'Really a dangerous precedent’: Utah gun advocates are angry about the Trump administration’s ban on bump stocks

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) In this Oct. 4, 2017 file photo, a little-known device called a "bump stock" is attached to a semi-automatic rifle at the Gun Vault store and shooting range in South Jordan, Utah.

Utah’s biggest gun advocates say that the ban on bump stocks announced Tuesday by the Trump administration — a little more than a year after a gunman used one to massacre 58 people in Las Vegas — infringes on their civil liberties and will do little to stop any future mass shootings.

“They were just looking for a scapegoat,” said Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council and one of the state’s staunchest Second Amendment lobbyists. “And they found one.”

Bump stocks alter semi-automatic rifles to fire in quick bursts like a machine gun. They faced intense scrutiny after the October 2017 shooting at a country music concert in Nevada, the worst mass shooting in modern American history. By best estimates, there are tens of thousands of those devices in circulation. And, despite Tuesday’s regulation, there are no obvious or easy ways to enforce outlawing the sale and possession of them.

Aposhian, who owns a bump stock, said he’ll either destroy his or turn it in to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) by late March, as requested. But he doesn’t agree with the decision, and he doesn’t expect others to do the same.

“Why should anyone have to give up their own private property?” he asked.

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, demonstrates how a bump stock works when attached to a semi-automatic rifle at the Gun Vault store and shooting range Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, in South Jordan, Utah.

The regulation, led by the Department of Justice, was largely expected, though. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump promised he would ban the devices because they “turn legal weapons into illegal machines.” His administration has now reclassified the accessories as machine guns, which Americans are heavily restricted in buying, selling or owning under federal law.

That new interpretation reverses an ATF decision made in 2010, and a second approval in 2012 under then-President Barack Obama, that found bump stocks were not the same as machine guns and weren’t regulated under current statute. Under pressure after the Vegas shooting, a handful of states have made their own rules restricting them.

Utah has not done so, though a majority of residents — and most of the congressional members — in this overwhelmingly red and gun-friendly state have supported outlawing the devices. In an October 2017 poll, 69 percent of surveyed Utahns, including majorities across party, ideology, religion and education-level lines, said they wanted a law prohibiting bump stocks.

(Machine guns produced before 1986 are legal in the state for residents 18 years and older.)

Aposhian said that a bump stock makes it easier to fire rounds faster but does not make a gun automatic. He believes that Trump’s regulation is based on a misunderstanding and a disregard for mental health as a factor. He said there is “no pattern of abuse or unlawful activity linked to bump stocks.”

“The one guy in Vegas certainly doesn’t constitute a pattern,” Aposhian said. “I think the president and the administration [have] let emotion rule the day on this one.”

Aposhian and gun advocates worry the ban opens the door for more regulations on guns.

“It’s really a dangerous precedent,” said Janalee Tobias, a longtime conservative Utah activist and founder of Women Against Gun Control.

She would prefer a focus on what’s causing crime rather the weapon: “Is it the gun or is it the person?”

“Guns are harder to get than they ever have been but evil people still get guns,” Tobias suggested, adding that regulations are not the solution.

Bryan Melchior, who owns Utah Gun Exchange, an online firearm marketplace that sometimes includes individual vendors selling bump stocks, called the ban on the device “a feel-good move that doesn’t do anything to help” prevent massacres.

“No amount of infringement upon the civil rights of America will stop homicidal maniacs from carrying out their wishes,” he said. “I spent the whole stinking summer and millions of dollars spreading that message.”

In July, Melchior followed the Parkland students who survived a mass shooting at their Florida high school across the country on their March for Our Lives tour. While they called for gun regulations, he held counter rallies with the company’s military-style armored vehicle.

“Civil rights are civil rights,” he said Tuesday. “This is no different than your right to worship. But the anti-Second Amendment sentiment is far stronger than anything you have ever seen. There are sinister people at work, very powerful and sinister people at work.”

Even though the shooter in Florida did not have a bump stock, the March for Our Lives group has advocated for banning the accessories as one piece of their larger campaign for restricting access to firearms. Madalena McNeil, a gun safety advocate who works with the Utah branch of the national movement, said the current administration outlawing the devices is a good first step.

“We have to try something,” she said. “Something needed to happen.”

But where gun proponents see it was an overreach, McNeil sees it as not strong enough.

The regulation, she feels, lacks the teeth needed for enforcement and she wishes the response was more stringent, particularly as it comes 15 months after the Las Vegas shooting. Police have said the gunman there had 14 firearms fitted with bump stocks.

“I hope that we’ll build upon this,” she said. “We do need more federal regulations.”

The National Rifle Association, the lobby for gun rights, has not embraced the ban. But it did earlier this year call for a review to see if bump stocks could be regulated by law.

The regulation announced Tuesday will likely face a legal challenge.