In the week following the Las Vegas massacre on October 1, polls showed that nearly 75 percent of registered voters in gun-owning households supported a ban on bump stocks. Yet despite the public sentiment, an analysis by The Trace of comments submitted in response to a government proposal to regulate bump stocks shows that 85 percent of commenters opposed the measure.
In 2010, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ruled that bump stocks are accessories not subject to federal regulation. More than a dozen rifles modified with the devices, which enable semiautomatic weapons to simulate automatic fire, were recovered from the hotel room of the gunman, Stephen Paddock.
After public outcry following the mass shooting, the ATF announced in December that it would again explore the possibility of regulating bump stocks by reclassifying them as machine guns. As an early step in the evaluation process, the agency initiated a public comment period to solicit input from manufacturers, retailers, and consumers — parties that would be impacted should the rules on bump stocks change. The window for public comments closed on January 25, and all told, the agency received more than 36,000 submissions, which are still being reviewed and posted online.
The Trace downloaded the text of more than 32,000 of the comments and used computer scripts to parse and analyze them. The comments overwhelmingly opposed regulating bump stocks. Only 13 percent were in support of the proposal to regulate the devices. (Another 2 percent didn’t express a clear stance.)
The results of our analysis showcase a paradox of the gun debate. While widespread public support exists for many gun regulations and policies — from bump stocks to background checks — pro-gun advocates are significantly more active than their counterparts when it comes to engaging politicians and government agencies.
Twenty percent of the comments mirrored a form letter promoted by the Gun Owners of America, which opposes the regulation. Of those supporting ATF regulation, the majority of form letter submissions — a little over 6 percent of the total — came from a letter generated by the Giffords Law Center. An additional 2 percent of comments consisted of form letters promoted by other organizations.
The majority of comments — 72 percent, or about 23,000 — were unique responses written by individuals. To estimate the stances of these opinions, The Trace pulled a random sample of 1,000 submissions and labeled them as being for or against the regulation of bump stocks. Of the comments included in the sample, roughly 89 percent were written in opposition to the regulation, and 9 percent in support. The composition of the sample enabled us to extrapolate the makeup of all 23,000 pro- and anti-regulation unique comments: 64 percent against, and 6 percent in favor.
An additional round of analysis of our sample group revealed certain characteristics among unique commenters. For example, commenters who opposed the regulation were more verbose, writing messages that were on average 45 percent longer than those supporting the regulation of bump stocks.
Anti-regulation commenters were also more likely to mention the technical aspects of a gun, the ATF’s rule-making process, and the Constitution, while those favoring the regulation were much more likely to mention the Las Vegas massacre, as well as other mass shootings like the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which left 20 children and six educators dead.
In its request for comments, the ATF had posed a set of questions to manufacturers, retailers, and consumers in order to better understand the “scope and nature of the market for bump stock type devices,” but did not include an open call for opinions about the proposed regulation. Among the comments analyzed, we identified only five whose authors identified themselves as retailers, and one from a manufacturer.
The public comments collected by the ATF are intended to inform the agency’s decision of whether to reclassify bump stocks and subject them to regulation. If the agency chooses to propose a new rule, it would be sent to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for approval, before being published in the Federal Register.