On the issue of gun control, the politics in Michigan are as predictable as they are divisive.
Michigan’s 14-member congressional delegation typically splits along party lines, their views aligned with whether or not they are supported by the National Rifle Association. Nine GOP incumbents have taken $58,000 from the powerful gun lobby since they took office. The five Democrats received nothing from the gun-rights group. By and large, Michigan’s GOP representatives oppose stricter gun control. Democrats favor it.
But in the wake of the Oct. 1 Las Vegas shooting spree that killed 58 and injured hundreds, will the two sides find common ground over the fate of a device used by the Vegas shooter?
Democrats – joined by a growing number of Republicans in Congress – are pushing to ban the device that investigators say Stephen Paddock used to convert semi-automatic assault rifles into virtual machine guns, capable of firing over 500 rounds a minute.
It’s called a bump stock, it can be bought for under $200 and it’s perfectly legal.
All five Michigan House Democrats surveyed by Bridge Magazine say they back a ban on bump stocks. That’s no surprise, considering their previous support for broader measures like background checks on all gun purchases and a ban on semiautomatic assault rifles. Michigan’s two Democratic U.S. Senators ‒ Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters ‒ also support a ban.
But in what looks like a break from the past, three Michigan House Republicans signaled to Bridge they support for a ban or limit on bump stocks. Rep. Fred Upton told Bridge: “There is no place for them in a civil society. None.” Reps. Mike Bishop and David Trott issued statements in general support of taking action against the use of such devices.
The remaining six House Republicans fall into two other camps: Three members ‒ Bill Huizenga, Paul Mitchell and Tim Walberg ‒ said the bump stock issue merits further discussion. While the other three ‒ Justin Amash, Jack Bergman and John Moolenaar ‒ did not respond to numerous inquiries from Bridge seeking their position.
Huizenga said in a statement he believes “a discussion on bump stocks is appropriate,” while a spokesman for Walberg said the devices “should be looked at with greater scrutiny.” Mitchell said “any mechanical device that circumvents existing federal law on automatic weapons is of great concern and needs to be addressed.”
A crack in the GOP
Democrats for years have pushed gun control legislation without success, most notably after a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. Those measures focused on a requirement of background checks for all firearm sales and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines.
A similar Democratic drive for gun control failed after a lone gunman in 2016 killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub.
Beyond the Michigan GOP, there are signs – at least on the narrow issue of bump stocks – that the Republican-controlled Congress could be prepared to act following the tragedy in Las Vegas.
Florida GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo introduced a bill Oct. 5 to ban the device, saying: “I think we are on the verge of a breakthrough when it comes to sensible gun policy.” Other GOP representatives voiced support for the measure.
Republican senators including John Cornyn of Texas, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said they too are open to a hearing.
“I own a lot of guns,” Cornyn said, “and as a hunter and sportsman, I think that’s our right as Americans. But I don’t understand the use of this bump stock.”
Tellingly, the NRA has not yet signaled it would stand in the way of such a ban, issuing a statement calling on regulators to “immediately review whether these devices comply with federal law.”
“In the aftermath of the evil and senseless attack in Las Vegas, the American people are looking for answers as to how future tragedies can be prevented,” the NRA stated.
But another gun rights group – Gun Owners of America – issued a statement from its executive director, Erich Pratt, opposing a ban on bump stocks.
“Any type of ban will be ignored by criminals and only serve to disarm honest citizens.” Pratt said, adding that it’s “sad to see some Republicans quickly call for a vote on gun control.”
In neighboring Ohio, one gun group said it opposes a ban on bump stocks.
Dean Rieck, executive director of the Buckeye Firearms Association, said in an email that a ban would create a “slippery slope” that could further the goal of some to “take our guns away.”
One campaign expert said Michigan Republicans could be expected to pay particular attention to how the NRA plays this issue.
Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said it’s not so much the money the NRA gives to campaigns that makes the group such an effective advocate in Congress. NRA giving is relatively small compared to other major donors. It’s more about its ability to sway voters.
“I think the key with the NRA is they have this large, passionate membership,” Mauger said. “For a candidate to get that kind of membership on their side is a big thing.”
The NRA, he said, doesn’t “have to spend the amounts of money other groups do to influence the process.”
Among Michigan’s GOP delegation, Walberg has received the most NRA funding since taking office, $22,400. Huizenga is second, netting $10,650, followed by Upton with $7,000 and Moolenaar with $5,000.
All four received “A” ratings from the NRA last year for their stand on gun control. Democrats across the board got a grade of “F”.
Republican Amash got a B-. That lower grade makes sense in light of his vote in 2011, when he was one of just seven House Republicans to oppose a bill that would allow people with concealed handgun permits to legally carry the weapon in any other state that also allows concealed pistols.
His opposition underlines the peril of tangling with the NRA.
The NRA lashed out, alleging that Amash had mislead the organization in 2010 when he filled out a candidate endorsement form and said he would support such legislation. The NRA listed his office phone number and asked members to “let him know you're disappointed in him for lying to gun owners and the NRA.”
After giving Amash’s campaign $1,000 in 2010, the NRA has not donated to him since.
An arcane device gains attention
For many members in Congress, they are dealing with an issue – bump stocks – they never heard of before.
The purchase of new automatic-fire assault rifles has been illegal since 1986.
But in 2010, a Texas Air Force veteran began marketing a device to get around that prohibition, by harnessing a rifle’s recoil to fire up to 800 rounds a minute. Bump stocks replace a rifle’s standard stock, freeing the weapon to slide rapidly back and forth with each shot.
As seen in this video, the shooter holds the pistol grip with one hand and pushes forward on the barrel with the other, as the recoil repeatedly bumps the trigger against the finger.
In June 2010, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sent a letter to Texas-based Slide Fire Solutions, stating that the bump stock did not violate the prohibition on sale of automatic weapons.
Slide Fire Solutions founder Jeremiah Cottle was quoted telling the publication, Ammoland: “Some people like drag racing. Some people like skiing. And some people, like me, love full auto.”
But many gun enthusiasts consider the bump stock something of a joke, as weapons so equipped are notoriously inaccurate and unsuited to hunting or serious target practice. The NRA firing range at its Virginia national headquarters bans their use.
Brady Schickinger, executive director of the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners – a gun rights advocacy organization – said his group takes no position on bump stocks. Schickinger confessed he had not heard of them before the Las Vegas shootings.
“I’ve never seen anyone use a bump stock,” Schickinger said. “The idea when you go shooting is to produce a tight group (of rounds) on your target. Bump stocks waste ammunition and they produce very inadequate results.
“As civilians, we are paying for ammunition and ammunition is expensive.”
Even if a ban on bump stocks passes, Michigan Democrats say that’s not enough. They point out that the Sandy Hook and Orlando nightclub shooters managed to kill 75 using semi-automatic weapons. And it’s still legal to purchase firearms at a gun show or from a private party without a background check.
“We need long-term solutions that make our communities safer and emphasize responsible gun ownership while protecting Americans’ Second Amendment rights,” said U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield. “I urge my colleagues in both the House and Senate, and on both sides of the aisle, to take immediate action and not rest until we address this ongoing crisis.”