The NRA's strategic ploy on bump stocks

(CNN)A quick glance at the TV Thursday afternoon produced a bit of a stunner: The National Rifle Association announced its support of further regulations on bump stocks, the mechanism that Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock used to turn a semi-automatic weapon into something resembling a fully automatic one and murder 58 people.

"The NRA believes that devices intended to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations," Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox, the group's top two leaders, said in the statement. "In an increasingly dangerous world, the NRA remains focused on our mission: strengthening Americans' Second Amendment freedom to defend themselves, their families and their communities."
The NRA, as has been revealed through its many legislative victories on gun matters over the years, is not dumb. And the group's decision to be for further regulation of bump stocks is clearly a strategic move aimed at avoiding any more sweeping or comprehensive attempts at gun control.
    Maybe the NRA is also motivated by genuine belief that bump stocks are a bad thing and need to be more regulated. But an organization as politically aware of itself as the NRA is never not keeping an eye on its politics.
    Consider first that the NRA is calling on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to handle the bump stock issue. Why does this matter? Because if ATF takes on the issue, it means that Congress doesn't.
    Congress is filled with 535 members -- each of whom has ideas and strategies about how to accomplish their goals related to guns. Putting any sort of legislative proposal before Congress -- even one with a very limited initial scope like further regulating bump stocks -- poses a major risk for the NRA and other major players in the gun lobby.
    It's the equivalent of opening Pandora's box -- not just in terms of how the legislation might wind up looking but also in terms of public attention being paid to gun laws.
    So even as Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican, gears up to introduce bump stock legislation, the NRA swoops in and says essentially: "Isn't this better handled by ATF?" Several senior GOP sources tell CNN's Phil Mattingly that the ATF option is the preferred route for leadership in both chambers right now.
    Which brings me to the second major reason why the NRA proactively came out in favor of ATF-driven regulations on bump stocks: It allows for a simple -- and quick -- answer to the horrors of the Las Vegas shooting without endangering any of the key elements of what the NRA and its supporters hold dear.
    There's a hint at that notion in a less-quoted set of lines from the NRA statement:
    "In the aftermath of the evil and senseless attack in Las Vegas, the American people are looking for answers as to how future tragedies can be prevented. Unfortunately, the first response from some politicians has been to call for more gun control. Banning guns from law-abiding Americans based on the criminal act of a madman will do nothing to prevent future attacks. This is a fact that has been proven time and again in countries across the world."
    What being for bump stock regulations allows the NRA to do is, well, be for something that most Americans think is a common-sense measure. (The truth is that most Americans had no idea what bump stocks even were prior to Sunday night, much less that they are legal.) It also allows the NRA -- and this is the most important part -- to be against other gun control measures.
    It takes the air out of the attack -- that many Democrats have already made in the wake of Las Vegas -- that the NRA opposes all gun control measures and that the Republican Congress marches in lockstep with them. "We were for bump stocks!" the NRA can now respond. "We led the charge on regulating bump stocks!"
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    The bump stock move by the NRA is also a way to avoid prolonged debate about gun laws in this country. The last time that happened was in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings in late 2012. And while the NRA helped defeat the two major gun control proposals offered up in the wake of those murders, it was not without a major struggle and considerable capital -- political and otherwise -- being spent.
    The NRA knows that its cause is best served when guns are simply not a topic of debate for Congress or the country. The status quo is just fine with them.
    Any day the NRA is in the news is a bad day for the NRA.
    Make no mistake: This move on bump stocks is an attempt by the NRA to stop a broad public debate on guns before it really begins in earnest. And it almost certainly will work.