BOSTON — Gun owners are weighing a lawsuit to block the state’s new ban on bump-fire stocks, arguing that it’s unconstitutional because it forces them to turn over property without compensation.
The state's Executive Office of Public Safety and Security has sent letters to hundreds of thousands of registered gun owners, informing them of the ban on bump stocks or trigger cranks, which were outlawed by the state Legislature in response to the Las Vegas shooting massacre. The law gave gun owners 90 days, or until Feb. 1, to turn them over.
In the letter, Secretary of Public Safety Daniel Bennett writes that gun owners should contact state or local police to find out how to surrender the devices. It also threatens charges for those who fail to do so.
"There are no exceptions to this prohibition for licensed firearm owners: a firearms ID card, a license to carry, or even a license to possess a machine gun will not authorize possession of a bump stock or a trigger crank," Bennett writes.
"Retention of such a prohibited item beyond the 90-day grace period will expose the owner to criminal prosecution," he added.
Advocacy groups for gun owners are contemplating legal action to block the ban.
"When the government sends you a letter telling you that you have to turn in property that you legally purchased, without compensation, people get pretty twisted about that," said Brent Carlton, president of Comm2A, a Second Amendment group that has filed numerous lawsuits against the state over gun control laws.
"There seems to be a very obvious constitutional violation here," he said. "If the government banned leaf blowers and told people to turn them over, they'd want their money back."
Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League, the Massachusetts affiliate of the National Rifle Association, said his phone has been ringing off the hook from people upset about the lack of compensation or worried about facing charges for not turning in the devices.
"The government cannot take property without compensating the owner," he said. "That's a clear violation of the Fifth Amendment."
Wallace pointed out that law enforcement officers are not exempt, which means they legally shouldn't be accepting devices from gun owners who are surrendering them.
"There are very strict rules about who is allowed to destroy guns and how that process happens," he said. "They're going to have to be careful how they proceed with this law."
Neither gun rights advocates nor state officials know how many bump stocks or trigger cranks are owned by Massachusetts residents.
Under the ban, anyone caught with one of the devices could face anywhere from 18 months up to life in prison.
Once known only among gun enthusiasts, bump-fire stocks are cheap accessories that can be installed on a semiautomatic rifle.
Replacing a traditional stock and pistol grip, they leverage a rifle’s recoil to allow users to fire more rapidly without seeming to pull the trigger for each round.
Trigger cranks attach to rifles and fire using a lever or similar, turning part.
The law exempts weapons that were "initially designed or manufactured to fire through the use of a crank or lever."
Stephen Paddock, who killed 59 people, including Rhonda LeRocque, 42, of Tewksbury, and wounded more than 500 others at a country music festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, had 23 guns in his possession. At least a dozen had bump-fire stocks, police have said.
Several retailers, including Walmart, have removed the accessories from their shelves.
Massachusetts was the first state to take up a ban on the devices after the incident, passing the law with broad support from Republicans and Democrats.
At least 15 states are also considering bans, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California already prohibited the sale of bump-fire stocks.
Efforts to ban the devices nationally appear to have stalled in Congress.
Following the Las Vegas shooting, President Donald Trump and Republican leaders initially signaled an openness to banning the accessory after decades of resistance to limits on guns among conservatives.
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Salem, teamed up with Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Florida, on a bipartisan proposal to outlaw the devices.
But House Speaker Paul Ryan recently poured cold water on their efforts, saying the issue should be handled by regulation. He told reporters the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, not Congress, should come up with proposed restrictions.
The NRA has said the devices should be "subject to additional regulations" but has stopped short of calling for a ban.
John Rosenthal, founder of the group Stop Handgun Violence, said bump-fire stocks "have no place in a civilized society" and should be banned nationwide.
"They are designed for one purpose — to kill lots of people quickly," he said.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.