The advertisement being struck: “Unleash ‘Hell-Fire.'”
It depicts a gunner, wearing a skull mask with obscured eyes, unloading an AR-15 that sends spent cartridges out of the ejection port. The ad text reads, “All you need to do is pull the trigger and fire at speeds up to 900 rpm” – or rounds per minute.
The sales pitch is for a Hellfire trigger device, a weapon accessory that allows a semi-automatic rifle to fire at speeds comparable to a machine gun. While the physics behind the device are nearly identical to that of a bump stock — now illegal under federal law — hellfires remain cheap and easy to come by. Including, apparently, by a teenager intent on mass murder.
The gunman in the Uvalde massacre had purchased a hellfire device, which was recovered in one of the classrooms where the massacre took place, according to investigative documents reviewed by the New York Times† Federal authorities reportedly do not believe the device was used in the attack. But had it been deployed, the massacre at… Robb Elementary School – where 19 children and two teachers were murdered – could have been unimaginably worse.
Even in the trigger-happy US of A, machine guns would be illegal. A central part of the federal firearms law since the days of Al Capone’s 1930s, fully automatic weapons are too powerful to be in civilian hands. Yes, modern consumers can buy high-powered weapons, such as AR-15-style rifles, which are nearly identical to weapons used in the US military, but these weapons only fire one round with each pull of the trigger.
But in the poorly regulated market of firearms accessories, a small but committed group of companies has pushed the legal boundaries. They have developed and marketed devices that bypass the limitations of semi-automatic weapons and turn rifles into bullet hoses that can fire hundreds of rounds per minute.
After a 2017 massacre in Las Vegas, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — more commonly known as ATF — banned a class of these accessories, known as bump stocks, by classifying them as machine guns. But they didn’t touch the hellfire triggers.
That differential treatment doesn’t make sense, emphasizes Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center. When it comes to hellfires and similar “trigger-activators,” he says, “ATF has been very, very lenient in its interpretation of federal law.”
“Bump-Firing Without the Stock”
A hellfire device and a bump stock both rely on the same physics to mimic fully automatic fire. They absorb the energy from the recoil of a single shot, then bounce the weapon back slightly forward, activating the trigger against a shooter’s otherwise stationary finger — over and over and over and over again.
With a bump stock, this rebound is generated in the butt of the rifle which is pressed against the shooter’s shoulder. A hellfire device attaches to the pistol grip and bounces off the shooter’s palm.
ATF itself recognized the similarity of the devices, explicitly compare she corresponded with a congressman in 2013, when both devices were deemed legal. Gun enthusiasts today praise hellfire as offering “bump firing without the stock.” (ATF did not answer questions from rolling stone about why the devices are treated differently.)
From San Francisco to Waco
Hellfires are not new. In fact, the trigger devices have a dark history. In a 1993 mass shooting at a high-rise building in San Francisco, the gunman used hellfire triggers attached to a pair of assault pistols with 50-round magazines; he eight dead, injured six, then took his own life. Hellfire triggers were also believed to have been in use at David Koresh’s militarized Waco, Texas cult compound.
Today, the trigger devices are cheap and marketed with disturbing slogans and images. It is not immediately clear which device the Uvalde shooter has bought. But there are many models available online. At one store, you can get the “classic” hellfire “made infamous by David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco” for just $29.95, according to the sales pitch.
The “Gen II” model offers “kickback assist technology” to allow “one-handed operation” and costs $59.95. A new “Stealth” model, meanwhile, retails for just $39.95 and can be “activated or deactivated” in seconds “invisibly within your grasp on any AR15-style rifle”.
Ban Bump Shares
Surprisingly, it was the Trump administration that banned bump stocks — after they were used to have catastrophic consequences in a shooting in Las Vegas in 2017† In that attack, a gunman fired AR-15s equipped with humps from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel. The spray from more than 1,000 rounds killed 60 people and injured more than 400 at a concert festival below.
Without the need for new legislation, ATF has issued a rule ban bump stocks in 2019. The devices, the regulation states, “convert an otherwise semi-automatic firearm into a machine gun” by using “the recoil energy … [to] keep firing without additional physical manipulation of the trigger by the shooter.” (The Regulation has, at least so far, held up in court)
Despite operating on the same principle, hellfire triggers remain street legal – leaving the firepower of machine guns in the hands of untrained amateurs. In fact, the rate of fire enabled by these devices is so high that the more expensive hellfire models actually offer features to slow the firing cycle “to save ammunition!”
Hellfire triggers can be tricky to master – which may be why the young Uvalde gunner didn’t deploy his in the end. And it’s impossible to know whether automatic fire would have caused even more destruction at Robb Elementary School. (The shooter was left unmolested by the local police for over an hour, the shooter was not given time.)
The “main” derivation of the Hellfire purchase is what it reflects on “the gunner’s mindset,” Sugarmann argues. “He had gone to great lengths to find the most deadly combination of weapons and accessories when he planned the attack.”
Such lethality is – not coincidentally – the best-selling item of the modern firearms industry, which pitches its customers on military precision and firepower. That includes the creator of the Uvalde shotgun, Daniel Defense, whose Georgia headquarters is located at “101 Warfighter Way.”
Uvalde’s gunner simply found in Hellfire a cheap accessory that promised to unlock the entire military pedigree of his weapon, mimicking the automatic fire reserved for soldiers.
Sugarmann insists the ATF has the authority to send a warning to the industry by targeting hellfire makers, who are small operators and operate on the fringes of the industry. “They’re the bottom eaters,” he says. “Taking action against any of them would send a signal to the entire industry that ATF has a regulatory role it can use to protect public safety.”
The founder of the Violence Policy Center insists that the agency “could act against them as they have moved against the stocks.” But so far, Sugarmann laments, “the agency has chosen not to.”
Indeed, the text of ATF’s own bump-stock regulations notes that public commentators have argued that the broad language could be read to include “Hellfire trigger mechanisms” and similar devices. The agency’s response? Simply that it “disagrees that other firearms or devices … be reclassified as machine guns under this rule.”