The shooter in the horrifying 2017 Las Vegas massacre used a “bump stock”—a device that drastically increases a semiautomatic rifle’s rate of fire. While Congress didn’t respond, the Trump administration’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) banned bump stocks by executive fiat, instructing owners to surrender or destroy the devices within 90 days.

Today, however, in a 6–3 decision, the Supreme Court in Garland v. Cargill holds that the executive branch has no right to ban bump stocks under existing law. The ruling offers a lesson in the perils of executive overreach and a chance for Congress to do what it should have done from the start.

Let’s start with a primer. Semiautomatic weapons fire one bullet with each pull of the trigger. “Automatic” weapons, by contrast, continuously spray bullets when the trigger is held down. The latter have been tightly regulated for 90 years and today are rarely owned by civilians.

The law restricting automatic weapons regulates what it calls “machineguns”—that is, “any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.” Bump stocks are essentially a hack of this language—they emerged as a way to evade its terms.

Normally, a shooter uses his index finger to pull a gun’s trigger. But to “bump fire,” the shooter holds his trigger finger steady and pulls the gun forward with his non-trigger hand. This continuous pressure, combined with the gun’s recoil, causes the gun repeatedly to move back and forth. The trigger resets when the gun moves back, and then the pressure from the non-trigger hand “bumps” it back into the trigger finger.

A shooter can bump fire without a bump stock; here’s a YouTube video of the “belt loop trick,” for example, using one’s pants to achieve the rapid-spray effect. But a traditional bump stock lets the shooter hold the gun against his shoulder, with the stock remaining steady as the weapon moves. As the Court noted today, the device “has a ledge to keep the shooter’s trigger finger stationary.”

For years, the ATF understood the consequences of the law’s wording and allowed bump stocks and similar inventions to be sold. (The major exception is that in 2006 it barred the use of springs to drive the gun’s movement.) Yet despite revealing a massive loophole in our regulation of automatic weapons, these devices mostly flew under the radar until the Las Vegas incident revealed their potential to inflict horrific, broad-scale damage.

Congress knew that banning a gun accessory would be politically difficult. The solution, backed by the National Rifle Association, was for the executive branch to pretend the law already applied to bump stocks, despite the statute’s clear language and the fact that the ATF had been allowing these devices for years. Meanwhile, several bills to address bump stocks went nowhere.

Any Court serious about interpreting the law as written would come to the same conclusion. Bump stocks simply do not allow a gun to fire multiple times with one “function of the trigger”; they help a shooter pull the trigger faster. Any functional Congress, though, would see the problem and fix the law, given that practically no one wants automatic weapons to be readily available and bump stocks make semiautomatic rifles their functional equivalent.

I have been making these points since the immediate aftermath of the 2017 shooting. Bump stocks should be treated like machine guns, but achieving this requires legislation. Fortunately, as Justice Samuel Alito pointed out in his brief concurring opinion, Congress can still change the law—“and perhaps would have done so already if ATF had stuck with its earlier interpretation.”

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images


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