Among the 23 guns found along with Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock’s body in his hotel room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, some were semi-automatic rifles modified to fire almost as fast as an automatic weapon using an accessory called a bump stock.
The rate of fire with which Paddock rained down terror on country music concertgoers last Sunday, killing 59 people and wounding hundreds of others, suggests that at least one of Paddock’s weapons had rapid-fire capabilities, according to firearms experts.
And while machine guns are heavily regulated by state and federal law, bump stocks are one of several methods used to modify semi-automatic weapons to fire at a nearly automatic rate. The modifications are perfectly legal in both Nevada and Ohio.
Turning a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic weapon is a felony. However, the modifications are legal because the gun still only fires once every time the trigger is pulled. By speeding up the rate at which the trigger is pulled, the bump stock mimics the rapid-fire capabilities of an automatic weapon without being fully automatic.
Gun control activists say these modifications should be illegal. Some of the devices are banned in other states and a Democratic proposal has been put forward to regulate them federally.
“Obviously it’s extremely concerning,” said Jennifer Thorne, spokeswoman for the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, about the availability of bump stocks and other accessories.
“This is not something we haven’t known and talked about before, but it seems like it takes a tragedy like this for, hopefully, our elected officials to wake up and realize the kinds of weapons we have readily available to anyone in this country is really unacceptable.”
Echoing other gun rights advocates, Joe Eaton, regional spokesman for the Buckeye Firearms Association, said what allowed Paddock’s killing spree to become the worst mass shooting in modern American history wasn’t his weapon, but his tactics. Paddock fired at night from an elevated sniper perch some distance from his victims.
“The biggest difference was that he removed himself from the victims where they had no ability to fight back or even get themselves out of his area,” Eaton said. “He was so far removed that he was able to continue murdering people until police found him and tracked him down.”
Eaton called talk of gun restrictions a “red herring.”
“If he was over a hotel and throwing Molotov cocktails on the crowd, think of the devastation he could have achieved there,” he said.
Paddock could have legally obtained a fully automatic weapon with enough money and a criminal background check. But the process would have taken several months and the limited supply of legal machine guns puts their price often in the tens of thousands of dollars.
But a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle can be purchased for $1,000 or less. And with less than $200 more, an attachment can legally speed up the firing rate to the same speed used in Las Vegas.
A New York Times analysis of the audio of the shooting notes that the unsteady rate of fire suggests he may have used such a method.
A “bump stock” or “slide stock” can be purchased at Cabela’s for $169. It uses the gun’s recoil to speed up the firing rate to hundreds of rounds per minute. These are not regulated by the ATF or under Ohio law.
Slide Fire Solutions, a leading manufacturer and retailer of these attachments, says on its website: “Since our launch in 2010, Slide Fire has not been notified by any individual state that our products conflict with any state laws.”
The company also posts a letter from the ATF on its website that says since the device is considered a firearm part, it is not regulated under the Gun Control Act or National Firearms Act. Messages left seeking comment from the company were not returned.
Gun experts note that bump firing a semi-automatic rifle can be accomplished with no modification to the weapon, but the bump stock allows for more control and faster shoulder firing.
Jeff Pedro, owner of the Sim-Trainer gun shop and range in Dayton, said he allows people to bump fire on his shooting range only if they pass a range test and prove they can do so safely. Even among gun enthusiasts, he notes, there is debate about bump stocks.
“I would lose no sleep if they outlawed slide fire,” he said, as long as people who bought them already were reimbursed or allowed to keep them.
But, he said, those who push gun restrictions in response to shootings like Sunday’s tragedy miss the real underlying issue.
“It’s no different than if he had rented a Ryder truck filled it up with fertilizer and fuel oil and detonated it in the middle of a crowd” Pedro said. “It’s not the item, it’s the individual involved.”
“The real story is going to be why he did it, if that information is ever known.”
Another attachment that speeds up the rate of fire for a semi-automatic weapon is a “trigger crank” or “gat crank.” These attach to the gun and allow the trigger to be suppressed multiple times with every turn.
The company Two Z Precision, for example, sells a device for $40 that can attach to an AR-15 and pull the trigger three times every time the crank is turned — essentially turning it into a Gatling gun.
The company says on its website that the product cannot be sold in California, Connecticut, Iowa or Minnesota.
In response to a question sent to the company a spokesman wrote: “The bill of rights is a list of individual rights that we are born with and can’t be taken away by government decree.”
The statement continued: “When someone used a truck to kill more people, did you contact Ford or GM and get comments from them? When the horrible atrocity committed by Russians against my fellow countrymen in Boston, did you contact Cuisinart and ask them about regulations on their pressure cookers? I’m gonna go with no, you didn’t.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced a bill Wednesday to ban the sale and possession of bump stocks and trigger cranks. In the wake of the tragedy, several Republicans indicated interest in studying the impact of a possible ban, and even the National Rifle Association issued a statement saying it would support further restrictions on bump stocks.
In Ohio, where Republicans control the House, Senate and governor’s office, legislation in recent years has sided with gun owners. Numerous bills pending in the Ohio General Assembly would increase places where guns can legally be taken and make it easier to get a concealed carry permit.
State Rep. John Becker, R-Union Twp., has been a staunch supporter of gun rights and sponsored a bill that allows hunters to use silencers. .
“Any knee-jerk reaction to what happened in Las Vegas will be wrong,” he said. “After the dust settles and the emotions of the moment go back to a normal level, then we can have those discussions.”
A spokesman for the Ohio House Democratic Caucus said Wednesday it’s too early to say whether state-level legislation is needed on gun modifications. Democrats have proposed unrelated bills for regulations such as requiring background checks for sales between private individuals, addressing the so-called “gun show loophole.”
There are 11,752 legally owned machine guns in Nevada, and 21,561 in Ohio, according to statistics released in April by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In Ohio, some of these belong to 369 licensed manufacturers, dealers and importers.
Federal agents routinely find illegally possessed guns. A former Greene County sheriff’s major in 2015 received five years’ probation and was barred from ever owning guns after he forged the sheriff’s name to obtain a machine gun, claiming it would be used for law enforcement purposes. A Tennessee man was charged Tuesday with having unlicensed machine guns.
The ATF doesn’t release how many private owners legally have machine guns, but federal law requires those weapons to be tracked. Private owners also can’t buy newly manufactured machine guns. They can only acquire guns made prior to 1986. This means the price of the limited supply often ranges in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Ohio law requires people who want to get a fully automatic weapon to file a form with local law enforcement. State lawmakers in 2015 changed the law so that a sheriff or police chief has to process the form. Just as with concealed carry permits, law enforcement must approve the form if a check determines that the person is legally allowed to own a gun.
These forms are then supposed to be filed with the state Fire Marshal’s office, because automatic weapons are categorized under Ohio law as “dangerous ordnance.” So far this year, seven such forms have been filed with the state for firearms or accessories, including a private collector in Mahoning County who owns a machine gun, according to the fire marshal’s office.