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WASHINGTON — One man could get Congress to ban bump stocks: President Donald Trump.
And it could take the power of the presidency to overcome the power of gun-rights activists at a time when the National Rifle Association and its allies on Capitol Hill are trying to kick the debate out of the legislative arena and to a federal agency that has ruled it won't regulate devices that allow guns to fire rapidly.
If Trump weighs in — for or against new restrictions on bump-stock regulations — he could be decisive, Republicans say.
"Nobody gives me more cover in my district than Donald Trump," said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., a former Army prosecutor whose central-Florida constituents favored Trump 62 percent to 35 percent over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
"They believe in Donald Trump and they believe that if he thinks they should be illegal, they should be illegal," he said, referring to bump stocks.
GOP officials are clearly torn between the instinct to defend gun rights and the political risk of doing nothing in the face of the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history. And while top Republicans have signaled an openness to discussing bump stock legislation — Speaker Paul Ryan told MSNBC's Hugh Hewitt that he wanted to "look into" the issue — they have stopped far short of calling for action.
At the same time, the NRA and supportive lawmakers are pushing to move the discussion from Congress to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
That would spare the gun-rights advocates from the kind of free-wheeling gun-control debate that might ensue if a bump stock ban makes it to the floor of the Senate. It would also ensure the decision is made by an agency that has essentially ruled — during the Obama administration — that bump stocks are legal.
The NRA's Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox on Thursday called on the ATF to "review whether these devices comply with federal law."
"The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations," they said in a joint statement.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who said he wants to ban bump stocks, sent a similar request to the ATF along with several fellow lawmakers. He told reporters Thursday that he thinks Congress isn't equipped to outlaw them effectively.
"Let's be honest about what would happen with a legislative solution," Kinzinger said. "Once that has the force of law, somebody could create a new device not named in that law which would technically be legal."
Either way, the path to prohibiting bump stocks runs through Trump.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said after the NRA's announcement Thursday that the president is open to a discussion of new gun-control measures in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre.
"We would look at taking any step we could to prevent something like this from happening again," she said. "We want to be a part of the conversation moving forward." She also reiterated that the president supports the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Brian Darling, a Republican strategist who supports gun rights and has worked on the issue, said Trump could influence the way gun-backing GOP lawmakers look at bump stocks.
"If Trump were to weigh in on this issue, it would move numbers of votes in the House and the Senate," he said.
Darling believes that a bump stock ban is likely to happen and that gun-rights groups should be focused on how to stop further action.
"The fight is making sure that a ban on bump stocks doesn't become a vehicle for other initiatives pushed by Democrats," he said.