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NRA supports push to regulate 'bump stocks,' surpassing White House, GOP stand

President Donald Trump addresses the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Atlanta, April 28, 2017. Trump is the first sitting president since Ronald Reagan to address the group's annual convention. (Al Drago/Copyright 2017 The New York Times)

WASHINGTON - The National Rifle Association has joined an effort to restrict a device that was used to accelerate gunfire in the Las Vegas massacre, after the White House and top Republicans signaled a willingness to debate the issue in response the tragedy.

"In Las Vegas, reports indicate that certain devices were used to modify the firearms involved. . . . The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations," according to a statement by NRA executive vice president and chief executive Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.

The statement from the NRA - its first since Sunday's shooting - was expected to galvanize the effort to further regulate so-called bump stocks.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., said Thursday that lawmakers will consider further rules for the devices, which allow legal semiautomatic rifles to fire as rapidly as more heavily restricted automatic weapons.

"Clearly that's something we need to look into," Ryan said on MSNBC. He said he did not know what bump stocks were before Sunday's shooting, which left at least 58 dead and hundreds injured.

"This is definitely an area where we're going to look and be able to act on," McCarthy said on Fox News.

"We're going to look at the issue," Goodlatte told The Washington Post.

On Thursday afternoon White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that President Donald Trump was open to having the conversation. "We think that we should have that conversation. And we want to be part of it moving forward," Sanders said during the White House press briefing.

Ryan, McCarthy and Goodlatte are among a widening group of Republican lawmakers who have said they are open to debating further restrictions on bump stocks. The growing willingness to address the issue within the GOP stands in contrast to the party's usual opposition to measures to restrict firearm use and access, and it could help lawmakers combat the perception that Congress has done nothing to address mass shootings.

It does not hurt that these particular restrictions might not garner as much resistance from the National Rifle Association as other gun-control proposals. The group exerts considerable influence on the GOP's approach to gun policy, and many Republicans fear that opposing it could lead the group to retaliate in future primary elections.

LaPierre issued the statement joinly with Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., so far, has not indicated that he is on board.

He told reporters Tuesday that it is "completely inappropriate to politicize an event like this" and declined to answer further questions on the subject.

Asked Thursday about McConnell's position, a spokesman referred to the leader's comments earlier in the week.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., who returned to Congress last week after surviving a shooting in Alexandria in July - echoed McConnell in an interview Wednesday.

"I think it's a shame that the day somebody hears about a shooting, the first thing they think about is how can I go promote my gun-control agenda, as opposed to saying, how do I go pray and help the families that are suffering?" he said.

In Congress, support for a bump-stock ban is starting to coalesce around several bills.

One, unveiled Wednesday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would ban the sale, transfer and manufacture of bump stocks, trigger cranks and other accessories that can accelerate a semiautomatic rifle's rate of fire.

Feinstein's bill had support from 38 Democrats as of Thursday morning, including Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who both face uphill fights for reelection next year.

"The notion that we're allowing an add-on that allows people to convert a semiautomatic weapon to an automatic weapon - we've got to address that," McCaskill said.

Democrats' own electoral map might complicate the debate.

Ten Democratic senators, including McCaskill, face reelection bids in mostly rural states that Trump easily won in the 2016 election.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said in a statement that she did not know much about bump stocks, "and I first want to learn more about them."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said that Feinstein's idea "sounds sensible and reasonable to me" but that he would consult hunters in his state before taking a position.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In the House, a bill from Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., would focus on bump stocks and leave out restrictions on other gun accessories.

Curbelo said he had been "flooded" with requests from Republicans who want to sign on to the measure, which he planned to introduce by the end of the day on Thursday.

"I think we are on the urge of breakthrough where when it comes to sensible gun policy," said Curbelo, a moderate Republican who represents a Miami area district. "It's obvious that this is a flagrant circumvention of the law, and no member of Congress should support any circumvention of existing law."

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., also introduced legislation similar to Feinstein's in the House. It had 140 co-sponsors as of Wednesday night.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that the sheer carnage of Sunday's mass shooting is fueling lawmakers' interest in the issue.

"Look at Las Vegas. That's how I account for it. Americans are horrified by it. They're horrified and they should be. I mean, it's the biggest killing in American history," he told reporters.

McCain, who supported expanding the national gun background check program in 2013, said he is open to supporting Feinstein's proposal, but wants to see the details first.

In a sign of the far-reaching interest in the issue, even Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., an ardent conservative, suggested he's open to supporting the bill. "Not yet," he said. "I think I probably will eventually."

Some lawmakers are pursuing a different approach to banning bump stocks that could preempt legislation.

Two House Republicans with military backgrounds, Reps. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, were gathering signatures Thursday for a bipartisan letter asking the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to revisit its 2010 administrative determination that bump stocks are legal.

A group of Democrats made the same request in their own letter to ATF.

Bump stocks were unknown to many members of Congress before Sunday's shooting, and lawmakers across the political spectrum said they have since logged onto YouTube to watch videos showing how the devices work.

"That's what I did yesterday," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, adding that many of her colleagues have done the same. "I don't think most people in the Senate were familiar with this."

Even some of the most avid supporters of gun rights said they had not heard of bump stocks before this week.

"This is such a new component to me, I have no idea how it operates, how simple it is," said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who has sponsored numerous bills to expand gun rights, including a stalled effort to partially deregulate silencers. He said conversations are underway among conservatives about how to approach the issue.

Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., who like Duncan belongs to the House Second Amendment Caucus, also said he was continuing to research the accessory.

"But if it allows a semiautomatic to do what that guy did?" he said. "I think we need to have serious considerations if we're going to allow that."

Democrats in the Senate are planning to introduce additional gun-control legislation, though it seems unlikely to move in the Republican-controlled chamber.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a fierce gun-control advocate since the Sandy Hook shooting, said he would reintroduce a plan to close a loophole allowing gun dealers to sell weapons after three days if the FBI has not yet completed a background check on the buyer.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., will reintroduce a bill aimed at strengthening the national background check system.

And Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., plans to reintroduce legislation that would allow qualified gun owners to use "smart gun" technology that restricts who can use a weapon.

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