Opinion: Bump stock baloney at the Court

A bump stock device (left), which fits on a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing speed, making it similar to a fully automatic rifle, is shown next to a AK-47 semi-automatic rifle (right) at a gun store in October 2017 in Salt Lake City.

A bump stock device (left), which fits on a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing speed, making it similar to a fully automatic rifle, is shown next to a AK-47 semi-automatic rifle (right) at a gun store in October 2017 in Salt Lake City. George Frey / Getty Images / TNS

By JONATHAN P. BAIRD

Published: 07-08-2024 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

Back in 2017, in what was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, a gunman killed 60 people and wounded 411 at a music festival held on the Las Vegas Strip. The gunman who was perched on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel had 14 rifles outfitted with bump stocks. He had smuggled them into his hotel room. He knocked out windows and started firing. Bump stocks can allow rifles to fire up to 800 rounds per minute.

The Las Vegas shooter rattled off over 1,000 bullets in the eleven minutes of his deadly shooting spree before he killed himself. The motive for the shooting remains undetermined.

In June, we had the U.S. Supreme Court rule 6-3 in Garland v Cargill that regulations put in place to protect the public from these lethal killing machines could not stand. This was not a Second Amendment case. It was rather a question of statutory interpretation of the regulation drafted after careful study by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

After the Las Vegas shooting, former President Donald Trump had asked the ATF to propose a new regulation banning bump stocks. In December 2018, the ATF presented the regulation which went into effect in March 2019. The legal question in the case was whether rifles with bump stock attachments are machine guns. Machine guns are banned under the 1934 National Firearms Act. The law goes back to a time when the government’s concern was stopping Mafia gangsters who were using machine guns in the commission of their crimes.

A bump stock is a replacement shoulder attachment for semiautomatic rifles especially AR and AK-style rifles that harness the recoil from firing to allow a shooter to fire shots in rapid succession. The federal government which had promoted the regulations argued that accessories like bump stocks convert semiautomatic rifles into machine guns.

It is easy to get lost in the intricacies of guns when looking at this case and that is what Justice Clarence Thomas does in his majority opinion. He put in pictures of firing mechanisms in his opinion. Thomas, however, along with the Court majority, entirely missed the forest for the trees.

Classifying bump stocks as not machine guns is obviously wrong. Look at the Las Vegas shooter. The reason he could kill so many so quickly was because of the bump stocks. The Supreme Court majority missed the purpose of the law which was to keep such guns out of the hands of people like that shooter. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote the dissent, was not buying the majority reasoning. To quote her: “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.”

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There is an absolute out-of-touchness about this Supreme Court. It’s like justices are cocooned in their privileged world far removed from common people. As you read this, Justice Thomas may be on a yacht provided by his billionaire buddy and benefactor Harlan Crow. The justices are so insulated from gun violence and the consequences of their decision.

In this last week, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a public health advisory on gun violence. He said, “Firearm violence is an urgent public health issue that has led to loss of life, unimaginable pain and profound grief for far too many Americans.”

In 2020, gun violence became the leading cause of death among U.S. children and adolescents. The firearm mortality rate among youths in the U.S. is 11 times higher than in France, 36 times higher than in Germany, and 121 times higher than in Japan. The rate of firearm-related deaths has been steadily rising. Whether in a school, a movie theater, or any place where people are congregating, gun violence is far too often a surprise unwanted intruder.

What is crazy about the Court’s bump stock decision is that the regulation at issue could not be more common sense. It was a response to the Las Vegas shooting. It should have been an easy lay-up.

Justice Thomas’s opinion is a ridiculous result. The law is already far too lax on any gun control reform but the Court evinces no concern about the toll taken. Such opinions will only create disrespect for the Supreme Court because they are undermining public safety. The Court is making it easier for deranged people to gain access to weapons that have no purpose beyond mass murder. Why does any civilian need a bump stock?

It’s likely that the Court’s decision will open the door to other gun accessories like forced-reset triggers that allow shooters to fire more than 900 rounds in a minute with one continuous trigger squeeze. The result is very in keeping with the Court’s posture around administrative agencies. ATF’s regulation got no deference. The Court is replacing agency expertise with a judicial power grab.

While the American public is focused on the presidential race, the big, wildly undercovered story is how the Supreme Court has been usurping power for itself at the expense of the other two branches of government. It is the far-right project of deconstructing the administrative state. Not allowing the regulation of bump stocks is part of that story.

Whoever the president is, the Court is making itself an obstacle to any progressive change whether it is guns, voting rights, the environment, women’s rights, consumer rights or health care. For many years conservatives whined about the activism of the Warren court. What is going on with the Roberts court is of an entirely different dimension. Forget stare decisis, forget any effort to achieve the narrowest rulings: this Court is results-driven to achieve the maximum far-right Federalist Society vision.

If I were going to offer a motto for the Roberts court it would be “Love the billionaire, hate the homeless.”

For any critic of the Supreme Court, there are too many major cases to respond to substantively which are piled up at the end of the term. The bump stock case is representative of the lack of concern for the public interest evinced by the Court majority. The Court belittles an urgent threat to the American public. Their decision will end up costing many lives.