Republicans defended a machine gun loophole; the Uvalde shooter used it

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A letter reveals 20 Republican senators defended a machine gun loophole months before the Uvalde shooter used it

The Uvalde shooter purchased a legal device that turns a semi-automatic rifle like the AR-15 into a weapon nearly as deadly as a machine gun, which has been heavily regulated for three decades.

An ad for one of the most popular versions, the Hellfire, which costs around $40, notes the legal benefit: “If you have ever considered converting to full-auto select fire and red tape or jail time got in the way, then the ‘Super Hellfire’ is for you.”

Another promotes the device’s use in historic, deadly mass shootings: “Certainly the most popular notorious trigger system ever. Made infamous by David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco. Own this classic today while supplies last.”

The Senate is preparing to vote on a gun safety bill after weeks of debate over what measures it should include. The sale of devices that juice a semi-automatic weapon into one that rivals an automatic was never on the table.

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But back in March, three months before the Uvalde shooting, 20 Republican senators signed a letter sent to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Department of Justice saying they were “grave[ly] concerned” about the agencies’ efforts to restrict sales of this type of device.

The senators objected to the ATF issuing this as internal guidance, calling for the ATF to publicly disclose they were pursuing this regulation.

They were writing in response to a new directive for ATF agents to “search out and demand ‘voluntary’ surrender of two models of forced reset triggers,” according to an agency email cited in the letter.

The ATF later responded to Republican concerns, determining that one type of fire-accelerating device, a “forced-reset trigger,” was a “machinegun” under the law. Federal law prohibits the sale or possession of machine guns manufactured after 1986. Many other devices remain legal, including the Hellfire, despite working in a similar way. The ATF did not return Grid’s request for comment and indicated in a rule-making that it likely won’t classify the Hellfire and similar devices as illegal.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act might be the most significant gun control legislation in a generation, but it does not focus on firearm technology itself or limit technologies that mass shooters can use to make their firearms more deadly.

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Most of the 20 senators, including the two who voted to advance gun control legislation in Congress this week, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on the letter and whether their views had shifted since the Uvalde massacre, though one senator’s office clarified that the letter was decrying the ATF’s use of secret guidance, not the legal status of the triggers themselves.

“It’s a fear that if we give an ounce, they’ll take a pound”

Under the National Firearms Act, any device that allows a weapon to shoot “automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger” is considered a machine gun and requires special permitting. The ATF has gone back and forth on its regulation of devices that can increase the rate of fire, but under current definitions, many of the devices are still legal.

Legislation involving firearms or accessories tends to meet strong opposition, even if many of the opponents privately agree on definitions.

“It’s a fear that if we give an ounce, they’ll take a pound,” said Richard Marianos, who spent 27 years inside the ATF in various roles, including as the special agent in charge of the Washington Field Division. “Any time a firearm fires more than one round from a pull of a trigger, it should be considered an automatic weapon, period.” He thinks the slow-motion videos of the trigger devices, which the manufacturers allege prove they are within the law, aren’t persuasive. “They’re splitting hairs.”

Would banning these devices stop mass shootings? Experts seem to doubt it, but they do think it could help limit the body count.

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“The amount of firepower that can be shot downrange can cause carnage, creating a difficult situation for law enforcement or even the military,” Marianos said.

The central question that some activists want to pose to the gun owner community is this: Should civilians be able to easily convert semi-automatic weapons to fully automatic?

“It is still up to Congress and state legislatures to close loopholes that allow the production or sale of other devices that enable semi-automatic weapons to function as machine guns,” according to a public statement from gun safety advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety. “Prohibiting bump stocks and other conversion devices would help prevent people from using them to mimic automatic gunfire.”

Robert Allen, a firearms expert at Tulane University’s School of Professional Advancement, suggested such prohibitions will be a challenge in Congress. “If you’re a congressman and somebody in the gun lobby was contributing to your campaign, you’re not going to turn around and bite the hand that feeds you,” he told Grid.

The senators who signed the open letter have received either funding, support or both from gun lobbyists. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who organized the letter, has received over $10,000 from the gun industry in 2022 alone.


Hell-Fire

The original creator of the Hellfire device purchased legally by the Uvalde shooter, Hell-Fire Systems Inc., went bankrupt in 1994. The company was sued after a deadly shooting the previous year in San Francisco, when a shooter used one of its devices to kill eight people at a law office.

“Since we cannot afford the huge legal fees required to defend this ridiculous claim, and since a successful defense would still put us out of business, we are left with no alternative other than closing the doors,” Lester Menica, the company’s president, wrote in a letter to Soldier of Fortune magazine at the time.

The ATF examined it in 1990, and purchases of the devices include a letter from the ATF stating that they are legal. Since then, independent manufacturers have designed similar devices usually sold under the same name.

While a handful of states have banned devices that increase the rate of fire of semi-automatic weapons, many have not, and the aftermarket industry is thriving.

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Rare Breed Triggers vocally challenges the ATF on forced-reset triggers

The manufacturer of a similar device to the Hellfire, Rare Breed Triggers, based in South Dakota, is attempting to challenge the ATF’s recent move to expand its definition of machine gun to include the company’s devices.

“ATF has become a rogue agency, they are operating outside the law and need to be reined in,” said Lawrence DeMonico, president of Rare Breed Triggers, in a Facebook video updating his customers. “ATF has no authority to change a law.”

Though the ATF has cracked down on Rare Breed’s forced-reset triggers specifically, including a raid of one of its vendors, devices like the Hellfire trigger don’t fit neatly under that definition, can be easily purchased and can be installed by a hobbyist. They are cheaper, too, at under $50. Rare Breed’s product requires installation and costs just under $400.

Rare Breed argues that its device fits into the current law, since the trigger slightly moves forward each time the gun fires. In a slow-motion video, like the one former ATF official Marianos saw, the company demonstrates that you can see this slight trigger movement. Regardless of the definition of a “machinegun” under the law, the device and devices like it allow vastly faster rates of fire, much closer to an automatic rifle only available to the military, something the company seems to concede.

Even with the Rare Breed device made virtually illegal, regulators are playing an endless game of Whac-A-Mole as manufacturers find ways to keep their devices within the letter of the law, or at least within loopholes.

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Previous attempts to ban modifications that make guns fire faster have failed

Several legislative attempts have failed to close the loopholes that allow these conversion accessories.

Following the Las Vegas shooting, where several of these devices were used, the Automatic Gun Fire Prevention Act, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would have made it illegal to sell any device that can accelerate the rate of a semi-automatic rifle’s rate of fire.

Feinstein’s daughter had planned to be at the concert where over 500 were injured and 58 were killed, but changed plans last minute.

The bill stalled in the House, gaining 176 Democrats as co-sponsors — and no Republicans. There has been very little discussion of the devices since.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Jason Paladino
    Jason Paladino

    Investigative Reporter

    Jason Paladino is an investigative reporter for Grid where he focuses on national security policy, U.S. foreign involvement and corruption.

  • Kaila Philo
    Kaila Philo

    Government and Political Institutions Reporter

    Kaila Philo is a reporter at Grid where she focuses on the U.S. government and political institutions.