Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
Despite a restrictive state preemption law, Columbia, South Carolina, became the first known city to ban the use of the controversial firearm accessory that made the Las Vegas shooter so deadly. The mayor hopes it will ignite local—and national—action.
Before a shooter released a seemingly endless torrent of bullets over a crowd gathered at a concert in Las Vegas earlier this year, most of the country didn’t know what a bump stock was. But it was the tiny attachment that had turned the Las Vegas shooter’s guns into weapons of mass destruction: Stephen Paddock had outfitted at least 12 of his rifles with bump stocks, which, attached to semi-automatic weapons, give them rapid-fire, continuous shooting capabilities. More than 50 people were killed, and more than 500 injured.
After the deadly Las Vegas shooting, lawmakers looked to the federal government to ban bump stocks, arguing that they had no appropriate purpose for sport or civilian defense, only destruction. At first, support for a ban was sweeping, bipartisan, and bolstered by the National Rifle Association—but soon the NRA turned against it, and members of Congress deflected the responsibility of regulation to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
In November, the state of Massachusetts decided to act unilaterally, passing its own state-level bump stock ban, joining California, which passed its own legislation in 1990. And now, the city of Columbia, South Carolina, is following suit.
Last week, Mayor Steve Benjamin and Columbia’s City Council passed legislation prohibiting the use of bump stocks (and trigger cranks, their similarly destructive cousin) in the city. CityLab could not confirm unequivocally that Columbia was the first U.S. city do so, but no other examples have been found.
After introducing a bill on December 5, Mayor Benjamin says he received vocal support from both sides of the aisle. By December 19, the legislation had been passed unanimously.
Benjamin says he is a proud gun owner, with a background in law enforcement. But even as a strong second amendment supporter and the mayor of a city “in the heart of the Deep Red South,” as he characterizes Columbia, he believed that banning bump stocks was smart policy-making.
“Yes, it was born out of Vegas because before Vegas we didn’t even know what a bump stock was,” said Benjamin. “But it was also born out of Sandy Hook; born out of Charleston, Texas, Orlando.” Each of these mass shootings, he says, seemed to result in even fewer regulations; more emphasis on arming “good guys with a gun.”
“We just thought this was a perfect opportunity for good guys with guns to do some good policy making,” Benjamin said. “The reality is that almost every one of our city council members owns guns. It seemed a really good opportunity in this environment in which our politics have become so polarized to make sure people realize we don't live on opposite sides of the spectrum.”
Columbia is not the most obvious first city to have passed this sort of gun regulation. As a red state, South Carolina preemptively bans cities from making any changes to firearm or firearm component regulation.
Some mayors would have been deterred from passing a ban altogether for fear of state preemption. But Columbia took a different tack, instead letting the state limitations guide the shape of its law.
To adhere to South Carolina’s rules, the Columbia council argued that bump stocks are not firearms themselves, but merely attachments that alter the firearms’ functionality. Therefore, the city had the power to regulate their use—but not their sale.
“It’s our opinion that bump stocks and trigger cranks are none of the above: [not a firearm nor a firearm component]. It’s a $23 accessory we can buy online that fundamentally modifies a legal firearm,” Benjamin said. “It’s not regulated by state law nor was it contemplated to be regulated by state law.” The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also considers bump stocks exempt from those classifications.
Critics argue that the city has overstepped their bounds as a local jurisdiction, however. Within a day of the ruling, a Columbia lawyer Mark Schnee filed a legal challenge to the ban, arguing that bump stocks are indeed part of a gun, and their prohibition at the city level a violation of federal and state law. Schnee, who has previously sued the city over gun regulations, wrote in the legal filing: “The linguistic gymnastics attempted by the City is mind boggling and insulting to anyone with an I.Q. above 6.”
Others worry the legislation doesn’t go far enough. Without banning bump stocks outright, it’s harder to thwart incidents like the Las Vegas shooting. Gun enthusiasts and owners can still obtain and keep bump stocks, as long as they are stored separately from their guns. Those who aim to inflict harm on crowds might not be deterred by a small fine and a misdemeanor charge; and stores are still allowed to sell the bump stocks themselves.
When the ban takes effect, the penalty for bump stock use will be a misdemeanor, a fine, and 30 days in jail. This is a much weaker penalty than Massachusetts was able to impose. There, the punishments for use or possession will range from probation to a life in prison.
Columbia has acted as a legislative leader in the past: in December, it became the first city in the state to ban texting while driving; and in 2011 it banned bath salts when the state government wouldn’t act. “I do believe that cities should be leaders,” Benjamin said. “The federal government is broken, and the state government is either broken or chooses not to act.”
Mayor Benjamin says that he does expect tangible changes to come out of the legislation, like deterring gun shop owners from selling products whose use is illegal. And he supports and “fully intend[s] to actively lobby for the passage of a state law” that would make ownership of bump stocks a felony. “But we took the time to craft an ordinance that we firmly believe is statutorily sound,” he said. With this city-level step, he hopes to influence city, state, and federal lawmakers to pass copycat legislation.
“The typical dustup and legitimate outrage we have after each event is not enough to change the dialogue, not enough to influence policy-making,” he said. "The hope is, not only does this influence the actions of those who might sell bump stocks but more so it would influence federal policymakers.” The Columbia council used Massachusetts’ state ban as a model for the city’s, and Benjamin says he’s already received calls from other cities interested in looking at the city’s language to shape their own. (He would not name which cities have expressed interest, but says they come from a broad swath of the country.) And when he takes the helm of the U.S. Conference of Mayors as president next year, he expects the bump stock ban to rise to the top of many cities’ agendas.
"If you see those opportunities [for change] you have to take it upon yourself to address them—if you don't it’s clear that it's not a priority,” he said. “In a broad sense, if you don't step up and say enough is enough, people don't believe you're serious about these things.”