WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday that Congress needs to take a look at "bump stocks" that can effectively convert semi-automatic rifles into fully automated weapons. The Wisconsin Republican added his voice to a growing chorus of leading Republicans showing a surprising willingness to take a step, however narrow, in the direction of regulating guns in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre.
The killer in Las Vegas apparently used the legal bump stock devices on legal rifles, essentially converting them into automatic weapons, which are banned. That allowed him to spray gunfire into the crowd below much more quickly, with lethal results, exposing what some lawmakers said looked like a loophole in gun laws.
"I didn't even know what they were until this week, and I'm an avid sportsman, so I think we're quickly coming up to speed with what this is," Ryan said in an interview on MSNBC. "Fully automatic weapons have been banned for a long time. Apparently this allows you to take a semi-automatic and turn it into a fully automatic so clearly that's something that we need to look into."
The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, has made similar comments, as have other Republicans. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced a bill Wednesday to ban the devices, and a companion measure has been introduced in the House.
But it's not yet clear whether, having opened the door to cracking down on weapons, Republicans will actually walk through it. Inaction has been the norm for the GOP following other mass shootings in the past, including the Sandy Hook, Connecticut, massacre of schoolchildren five years ago, last year's bloodbath at the Pulse nightclub in Florida, and a baseball field shooting this year in which House Majority Whip Steve Scalise came close to death.
The powerful National Rifle Association, which has been instrumental in blocking past gun control legislation, has not yet made its views known on "bump stocks" or on Feinstein's bill. However, the organization has begun talking with lawmakers behind the scenes. GOP Rep. Bill Flores of Texas said Thursday that he got a concerned call from the NRA after expressing his support on Wednesday for regulating bump stocks.
Flores declined to detail the conversation, which he said took place between the NRA and his chief of staff, but reiterated his view: "Automatic weapons are subject to licensure, and if there's something that makes another type of weapon behave as an automatic weapon it ought to be subject to that same licensure."
"We as a nation need to look at that particular issue," he said.
The devices, known as "bump stocks" among other names, are legal and originally were intended to help people with limited hand mobility fire a semi-automatic without the individual trigger pulls required. They can fit over the rear shoulder-stock assembly on a semi-automatic rifle and with applied pressure cause the weapon to fire continuously, increasing the rate from between 45 and 60 rounds per minute to between 400 and 800 rounds per minute, according to Feinstein's office.
The government gave its seal of approval to selling the devices in 2010 after concluding that they did not violate federal law.
The chairmen of the judiciary committees in the House and Senate have indicated openness to learning more about the issue, but without committing to holding hearings.
"If you're going to have a meaningful hearing, you've got to know what your hearing is about. The investigation into the Las Vegas shooting is still ongoing, and we need to get more information before making a decision on a hearing and what it might cover," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
Nevada GOP Rep. Mark Amodei said the topic came up with President Donald Trump as they returned to Washington on Air Force One from Las Vegas on Thursday. Amodei said Trump sounded open to looking at the issue.