Last Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a Trump administration initiative banning bump stocks, the semiautomatic rifle attachments that enable the weapons to fire in long, sustained bursts like machine guns. The plastic devices harness the recoil energy of each rifle shot to shoot again, firing the weapon continuously as long as the trigger remains pulled.
Although more than half a million actual machine guns — more accurately known as fully automatic weapons — are registered in the U.S., their possession is strictly regulated in states that permit them to be owned. Other states outlaw them entirely.
Until recently, federal firearms regulators ruled that, under existing federal law, they could not ban bump stocks, as they are not weapons in and of themselves.
But after a gunman used bump stock-enhanced weapons during the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas — killing 58 people and wounding hundreds more while firing at a music performance — lawmakers and members of the public began calling for the devices to be banned.
Then, in February 2018, after a former student killed 17 people in a Parkland, Florida high school, calls for renewed gun-control measures intensified. And, although that attacker did not use a bump stock, President Trump directed the Justice Department to change the regulations protecting sale and possession of the devices.
In December, the department announced a ban on bump stocks, reclassifying guns equipped with bump stocks as machine guns because they “allow a shooter of a semiautomatic firearm to initiate a continuous firing cycle with a single pull of the trigger.”
A final new rule was issued later that month by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), giving owners of the devices 90 days to turn them in or destroy them. Anyone in possession of a bump stock can now be charged with a federal offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
That rule, though, was challenged by a group of gun owners in a federal trial court in Michigan, who contended that federal law did not allow the executive branch to ban bump stocks, and that the regulation would require the destruction of devices worth more than $100 million.
The judge who heard that challenge, Judge Paul L. Maloney of the Federal District Court in Kalamazoo, citing “the threat the weapons pose to public safety,” refused to block the regulation.
A request for a stay of the regulation filed by the challengers in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati was also rejected, by a three-judge panel.
The judicial panel acknowledged that the plaintiffs would indeed “suffer irreparable harm” from the economic loss. But it ruled all the same that “the public interest in safety supports denial of a stay pending appeal.”
It was that ruling that the plaintiffs brought to the Supreme Court, arguing that the rule “represents the single biggest ATF seizure of private property in history,” and is “made even more noxious because all existing bump stocks were manufactured and purchased in accordance with ATF rulings approving their sale.”
The High Court’s response last week, with no dissents registered, was a one-sentence order, simply allowing the regulation to remain in force while the challenges to it move forward in lower courts.
Although the case concerns the scope of executive power, not the Second Amendment, and is still before courts, it is heartening that President Trump, who has received enthusiastic support in the past from the National Rifle Association, has taken action through the Justice Department to try to curb mass gun violence. Any move, however incremental, in the direction of curbing gun violence in America should be welcomed.
But, of course, it would be unrealistic to imagine that outlawing bump stocks will prevent people bent on murdering large numbers of others from acting on their evil designs. To begin with, there is no mechanism in place that can ensure that most, or even many, of the hundreds of thousands of bump stocks in private hands will in fact be surrendered or destroyed.
What is more, technologies like 3-D printing can be harnessed by individuals to produce bump stocks fairly easily. And much carnage can result, as it has so often in the past, even from the use of standard semi-automatic weapons.
And so, even with the Supreme Court’s refusal to stay the bump stock rule, and even if the regulation emerges intact from all the litigation over it, more needs to be done to wisely balance the Second Amendment’s protection of Americans’ gun ownership with the reasonable safety concerns of all Americans.