SCOTUS bump stock ruling, subsequent Senate effort show why elections matter

It isn't surprising to see modern media outlets put their anti-gun bias on full display — or any bias, for that matter.

Typical of the New York Times is this headline, "Supreme Court Ruling on Bump Stocks Could Open Door to More Lethal Weapons."

Likewise, Bloomberg chimed in with "Supreme Court's Bump Stock Ruling Reflects Its MAGA Agenda."

That last one is ironic, considering the bump stock ban occurred during MAGA leader President Donald J. Trump's presidency. But it's Bloomberg, so …

Related story: Buckeye Firearms Association applauds U.S. Supreme Court ruling on bump stocks

SCOTUS decisions are supposed to be based in the Constitution and law, not in political biases. This bump stock ruling is both alarming and promising.

What is alarming is the manner in which the more liberal justices have come to decide on high-profile cases, with statutory text taking a back seat to what they perceive as common sense. And this case is less about the Second Amendment and more about due process.

The role of the court is guardianship of that statutory text, as defined on the SCOTUS website.

"As the final arbiter of the law, the Court is charged with ensuring the American people the promise of equal justice under law and, thereby, also functions as guardian and interpreter of the Constitution."

Keep that quote in mind as we look at how Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the dissenting opinion in Garland v. Cargill, with support from Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

"Congress’s definition of 'machinegun' encompasses bump stocks just as naturally as M16s. Just like a person can shoot 'automatically more than one shot' with an M16 through a 'single function of the trigger' if he maintains continuous backward pressure on the trigger, he can do the same with a bump-stock-equipped semiautomatic rifle if he maintains forward pressure on the gun. §5845(b). Today’s decision to reject that ordinary understanding will have deadly consequences. The majority’s artificially narrow definition hamstrings the Government’s efforts to keep machineguns from gunmen like the Las Vegas shooter. I respectfully dissent."

Sotomayor spent most of her writing on Congressional actions related to a 1934 federal law, saying it doesn't matter whether the mechanism is internal or external.

But it does matter, and any government efforts should be hamstrung by narrow definitions. That's precisely why we have a Constitution, so that feelings and loose interpretations don't outweigh Americans' fundamental rights.

What is promising is that the 6-3 majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas and supported by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh, emphasized legal text. And by doing so, common sense and justice prevailed.

"A semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock does not fire more than one shot 'by a single function of the trigger.' With or without a bump stock, a shooter must release and reset the trigger between every shot. And, any subsequent shot fired after the trigger has been released and reset is the result of a separate and distinct 'function of the trigger.' All that a bump stock does is accelerate the rate of fire by causing these distinct 'function[s]' of the trigger to occur in rapid succession. As always, we start with the statutory text, which refers to 'a single function of the trigger.' The 'function' of an object is 'the mode of action by which it fulfills its purpose.”

He continued:

"The question in this case is whether a bump stock transforms a semiautomatic rifle into a 'machinegun,' as defined by §5845(b). For many years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) took the position that semiautomatic rifles equipped with bump stocks were not machineguns under the statute. On more than 10 separate occasions over several administrations, ATF consistently concluded that rifles equipped with bump stocks cannot 'automatically' fire more than one shot 'by a single function of the trigger.' … In April 2017, for example, ATF explained that a rifle equipped with a bump stock does not 'operat[e] automatically' because 'forward pressure must be applied with the support hand to the forward handguard.' … And, because the shooter slides the rifle forward in the stock 'to fire each shot, each succeeding shot fir[es] with a single trigger function.' … ATF abruptly reversed course in response to a mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada. In October 2017, a gunman fired on a crowd attending an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and wounding over 500 more. The gunman equipped his weapons with bump stocks, which allowed him to fire hundreds of rounds in a matter of minutes. This tragedy created tremendous political pressure to outlaw bump stocks nationwide. Within days, Members of Congress proposed bills to ban bump stocks and other devices 'designed … to accelerate the rate of fire of a semiautomatic rifle.' … None of these bills became law. Similar proposals in the intervening years have also stalled. …

While the first wave of bills was pending, ATF began considering whether to reinterpret §5845(b)’s definition of 'machinegun' to include bump stocks. It proposed a rule that would amend its regulations to “clarify” that bump stocks are machineguns. … ATF’s aboutface drew criticism from some observers, including those who agreed that bump stocks should be banned. Senator Dianne Feinstein, for example, warned that ATF lacked statutory authority to prohibit bump stocks, explaining that the proposed regulation 'hinge[d] on a dubious analysis' and that the 'gun lobby and manufacturers [would] have a field day with [ATF’s] reasoning' in court."

Indeed it did.

This case demonstrates why elections are so important. Yes, the 2018 ATF Final Rule was put into effect during Trump's presidency, but it was a SCOTUS majority made possible by him that got this one right. Even still, as I write this, anti-gun leaders in the Senate are urging moderate GOP lawmakers to support their bump stock ban efforts.

Give them an inch, they'll take a mile.

Joe D. "Buck" Ruth is a longtime small-game hunter and gun owner who spent nearly 30 years in the news industry.

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