Opinion | The Supreme Court’s Welcome Bump Stock Ruling

opinion | the supreme court’s welcome bump stock ruling

Why should Congress ever take a vote if lawmakers can simply defer hard policy choices to the regulatory state? That is the subtext of the Supreme Court’s welcome 6-3 ruling Friday on “bump stocks,” which are rifle accessories that facilitate rapid firing. Regulating bump stocks may be a reasonable policy, but it’s up to Congress.

The opinion in Garland v. Cargill, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, is a straightforward case of statutory interpretation. Federal law strictly regulates machine guns, but it defines them as weapons that “automatically” fire multiple rounds “by a single function of the trigger.” A bump stock doesn’t do that. As the majority explains, it’s “a plastic casing that allows every other part of the rifle to slide back and forth.”

This helps a user to quickly and repeatedly “bump” the gun’s trigger forward against a stationary finger. The mechanics matter, Justice Thomas writes, because the statutory definition of a machine gun “hinges on how many shots discharge when the shooter engages the trigger.” A semiautomatic rifle fires one shot per trigger pull, bump stock or no.

Writing in dissent for the three liberals, Justice Sonia Sotomayor says that when the law refers to a “single function of the trigger,” it really means “a single action by the shooter to initiate a firing sequence.”

She uses that logic to try to erase distinctions: “Just as the shooter of an M16 need only pull the trigger and maintain backward pressure (on the trigger), a shooter of a bump-stock-equipped AR–15 need only pull the trigger and maintain forward pressure (on the gun).” This is unconvincing, and the obvious difference is the latter trigger operates once per shot.

Her best argument is that the bureau of alcohol and firearms (ATF) has sometimes considered other gun tinkerings to be machine guns, including when a man attached a motorized fishing reel to a firearm, so its rotation would pull the trigger.

But Justice Thomas says the ATF “on more than 10 separate occasions” acknowledged that bump stocks did not qualify as machine guns. In 2018 the agency estimated that there could be up to 520,000 of them in circulation. The ATF does not get to turn something like half a million Americans into potential felons without any say-so from Congress.

By the way, the bump stock diktat wasn’t a Biden Administration regulation. The ATF moved during the Trump Administration after the Las Vegas mass shooter used a bump stock in 2017. The Trump White House approved it.

In doing so, it let Congress off the hook, as Justice Samuel Alito points out in a concurrence. “There is a simple remedy for the disparate treatment of bump stocks and machineguns,” he says. “Congress can amend the law—and perhaps would have done so already if ATF had stuck with its earlier interpretation. Now that the situation is clear, Congress can act.”

This is an especially important message in an era when regulators in both parties have decided they can rewrite laws regardless of the plain language of a statute. In this and other cases, the Supreme Court has been saying loud and clear that regulators can’t exceed their authority—and that Congress needs to get back in the business of debating and writing laws rather than ducking difficult votes in favor of the administrative state.

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