The Rational Ruling on Bump Stocks

The Supreme Court takes another step toward restoring the Second Amendment as a palladium of our liberty.

AP/Steve Helber, file
A bump stock. AP/Steve Helber, file

The Supreme Court’s decision overturning the Trump-era ban on so-called “bump stocks” reflects an understanding of the mechanics not just of gunsmithing but also the Constitution. It is the latest step by the high court to restore the Second Amendment as a first-class article in the Bill of Rights. It will be decried by the left, particularly because the vote within the court was on ideological lines, but it bodes well for the rule of law.

All Americans were horrified at the massacre that in 2017 took the lives of 58 and wounded hundreds at Las Vegas. The slaughter was perpetrated by a man using firearms equipped with bump stocks. These accessories enable a gun to fire numerous bullets with a single pull of the trigger provided that the shooter maintains “forward pressure on the rifle’s front grip with his non-trigger hand,” Justice Clarence Thomas observes in the high court’s majority opinion.

“This tragedy,” Justice Thomas adds, “created tremendous political pressure to outlaw bump stocks nationwide.” Yet before any legislation could emerge from Congress, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives took it upon itself to ban the devices. The agency’s argument was that bump stocks transform a semi-automatic rifle into a de facto machinegun. Such weapons are banned under the National Firearms Act of 1934.

That law defines a “machinegun” as a weapon that, with “a single function of the trigger,” fires “automatically more than one shot.” The six justices in the majority found that “a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock” is actually not a “machinegun,” though, “because it cannot fire more than one shot” with just “a single function of the trigger.” Even if it could, Justice Thomas notes, it would not happen “automatically.” 

Under this close analysis of the workings of rifles equipped with bump stocks — in an opinion that even includes diagrammatic illustrations of the applicable components of the firearms in question — Justice Thomas concludes that ATF “exceeded its statutory authority by issuing a Rule that classifies bump stocks as machineguns.”  As Justice Samuel Alito notes in a concurring opinion, “the statutory text is clear, and we must follow it.”

It might be tempting to view this dispute as a straightforward example of regulatory overreach by a federal agency, an all too common feature of the “administrative state” that seeks to impose the will of bureaucrats on Americans’s lives. Yet the Second Amendment — the “palladium* of our liberty” — stands as a subtext in this case. The gravity of the right to bear arms makes it all the more egregious to infringe it via an unjustifiable regulation.

That understanding animates Justice Alito’s observation that “an event that highlights the need to amend a law,” a reference to the Las Vegas shooting, “does not itself change the law’s meaning.” By contrast, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissent, warns that today’s ruling will have “deadly consequences.” She accuses the majority of misinterpreting the law passed in 1934, and says the ruling “enables gun users and manufacturers to circumvent federal law.”

For years, though, ATF denied that it had any legal authority to regulate bump stocks, Justice Thomas explains. That is why, he adds, liberals like Senator Feinstein groused that it was a mistake for the ATF to ban bump stocks. “The regulation hinges on a dubious analysis,” she said in 2018, “claiming that bumping the trigger is not the same as pulling it.” Feinstein called for Congress, not regulators, to act on the matter.

The late senator’s view is echoed by Justice Alito in his concurrence. “There is a simple remedy for the disparate treatment of bump stocks and machineguns,” he writes. “Congress can amend the law,” he adds, and might have already “if ATF had stuck with its earlier interpretation.” The Nine’s ruling today is a reminder that the right to bear arms, like the other liberties vouchsafed in the Constitution, cannot be so casually bumped aside by federal regulators.


* The phrase used for the Second Amendment by Judge St. George Tucker and, later, by Justice Joseph Story.

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  Create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use