(Reuters) - The Florida inventor who designed the first “bump stock,” nearly two decades before the Las Vegas gunman used one to massacre 58 people on Sunday, never made a dime off of his creation.
For years, Bill Akins fought to capitalise on his idea - with the U.S. government, his former business partner and a rival competitor - but found himself stymied at every turn.
The 63-year-old Marine veteran and Elvis impersonator voiced his sorrow at the tragedy in Las Vegas, where authorities said Stephen Paddock had bump stocks installed on 12 of his rifles. The device allows semi-automatic weapons to fire almost as rapidly as machine guns, which are largely outlawed.
“I would like to express my dismay and sincere condolences to the victims, families and anyone affected by the recent Las Vegas mass shooting,” Akins said during a telephone interview from his home about 45 minutes north of Tampa, Florida.
But he also defended the devices as protected under the U.S. Constitution’s right to bear arms.
“People need to recognise that we either have a constitution, or we don’t,” he said.
Akins first came up with his idea while watching a documentary about World War Two in 1996 that showed twin anti-aircraft guns firing at Japanese warplanes from a U.S. Navy ship.
He saw the barrels sliding back and forth with each concussive recoil and wondered if he could design a device that would mimic that action, turning a semi-automatic rifle that fires once per trigger pull into a weapon capable of shooting hundreds of rounds per minute.
The result, which he eventually termed the “Akins Accelerator,” seemed promising enough. Akins teamed up with a firearms industry businessman, secured two letters from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) affirming the mechanism behind the device was legal, and poured his savings into the project.
But the ATF outlawed the device in 2005, concluding that the retail version transformed semi-automatic rifles into illegal machine guns.
Another company, Slide Fire Solutions, began making its own version of the bump stock that was approved by the ATF, in large part because it lacked a recoil spring that Akins had included.
Akins transferred his patent to an outdoor sporting goods company, FosTecH Outdoors, and the two rival manufacturers engaged in a legal battle over patent infringement before settling the case in 2012.
The owner of FosTecH, whose website says the company strives to be “your bump fire stock specialist,” did not return a request for comment.
The seller’s site said it had suspended sales of bump stocks while it works on catching up with demand, which has skyrocketed since the Vegas shooting due to customers’ concerns that the item could be outlawed.
Slide Fire’s founder, Jeremiah Cottle, did not return multiple calls for comment.
Akins is limited in what he can say about the litigation, saying only that he is “legally prevented” from discussing certain aspects of the bump stock industry. But he made clear his ire at the ATF.
“They just destroyed our business,” he said.
The ATF did not immediately comment on the case.
Court documents showed the agency required all customers who purchased an Akins Accelerator to remove the spring, rendering the device inoperable.
Akins’ device was intended to improve upon “bump firing,” a practice in which shooters fired from the hip while keeping a thumb hooked inside a belt loop for stability, using the gun’s recoil to activate the trigger more quickly.
His innovation let users brace rifles against their shoulders in a more normal firing stance, improving accuracy and control.
Akins put up his own property as collateral for a loan to launch the business. He estimated he sold several hundred devices, priced at more than $1,000 each, before he was shut down - not enough to cover his startup costs.
He filed two unsuccessful federal lawsuits against the ATF, leaving him with a workshop full of unused Akins Accelerators.
“Boy, did I get an education,” he said. “I’m not a person who’d ever done business before with a corporation, never worked in the firearm industry before, just a tinkerer that came up with an idea.”
Akins is largely retired, though he still dons his Elvis costume for occasional gigs. He gave up his longtime National Rifle Association membership after he said the group offered no help in his fight against the ATF. But, he said, he remains a steadfast supporter of the right to bear arms.
He scoffed at the NRA’s willingness to accept stricter regulation on bump stocks, saying any law would run afoul of the Second Amendment.
“Congress has the right to pass laws,” he said. “But Congress is not supposed to pass a law that violates the constitution.”
Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Andrew Hay