Public Media for Central Pennsylvania
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

SCOTUS strikes down bump stock rule

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Trump-era federal ban on bump stocks today. The court decided that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had exceeded its authority when it banned the devices. The vote was 6-3, with the court's three liberals in angry dissent. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports. And a warning here to listeners - this piece begins with the sound of gunfire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Inaudible).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In 2017, a single gunman at a Las Vegas concert used multiple guns modified by bump-stock devices to kill 60 people and injure 400 - all in the space of 11 minutes. The Trump administration responded with a regulation banning bump stocks on grounds that they convert legal semiautomatic weapons into illegal machine guns. But today, the Supreme Court struck down that regulation.

Writing for the court's conservative supermajority, Justice Clarence Thomas said that a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not a machine gun because it doesn't fire automatically. Bolstering his opinion with six diagrams illustrating how bump stocks work, Thomas noted that the ATF reversed its previous position in 2017 in order to ban bump stocks.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito conceded that the Congress that enacted the law at issue here would not have seen any material difference between a machine gun and a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock. But, he said, the words of the statute do not allow the ban, and only Congress could change that.

Writing for the dissenters, Justice Sonia Sotomayor accused the conservative majority of once again turning a blind eye to the reality of gun violence and making it yet more difficult to adopt measures aimed at preventing bloodshed.

The dispute between the majority and dissent centered on how a bump-stock-modified weapon operates. Joseph Blocher is co-director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law. As he explains it, with a bump stock, the shooter puts his finger on a bump stock's finger rest and pushes the stock forward.

JOSEPH BLOCHER: What the bump stock does, essentially, is bounce the gun - that's the bumping - back and forth against your trigger finger. So as long as you keep the finger held and the stock is working, it'll just keep firing itself. So it - functionally, it is just like a machine gun, and nobody seems to disagree about that.

TOTENBERG: But Justice Thomas, speaking for the majority, said the bump stock doesn't change the internal firing mechanism, so it can't be classified as an illegal machine gun.

Justice Sotomayor, in a rare oral dissent from the bench, called it myopic to fixate on the internal functions of the gun and not the rapid shooting function that is added by a bump stock - a mechanism that allows the shooter to fire as many as 800 rounds a minute. Concluded Sotomayor, when I see a bird that walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.

Kari Kuefler survived the Las Vegas shooting along with her three month old baby. She teared up today as she talked about the Supreme Court's decision and its ripple effects.

KARI KUEFLER: People are finding it hard to have safe spaces anymore - from their homes, to their churches, to their schools, to their workplaces. Where do we go? We need to know that our government is fighting to get that back for us.

TOTENBERG: President Biden today called on Congress to pass a ban on bump stocks, but the prospects for that are at best unclear, given the persistent gridlock of modern times. UCLA law professor Adam Winkler has written extensively about guns and gun rights.

ADAM WINKLER: This decision shows the success of the NRA's long-term strategy for combating gun control. After the Las Vegas massacre, the Trump administration and members of Congress were on the verge of passing new legislation to ban bump stocks. The NRA ran interference, pushing the Trump administration to ban bump stocks through administrative agency regulation instead.

TOTENBERG: He says the NRA was betting that, given the current Supreme Court's hostility to agency regulations, the court would ultimately strike down the ban on bump stocks. It turned out to be a good bet.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.