Rule of Law

Opinion | The tragedy of the Supreme Court’s bump stock ruling

Don’t let technicalities, or a refusal to use common sense, become the enemy of public safety.

Regarding The Post’s June 15 front-page article “High court rolls back bump stock device ban,” E.J. Dionne Jr.’s June 15 op-ed, “The court’s bump stock ruling puts dictionaries above human lives,” and the June 16 editorial, “The court misfired on bump stocks. Congress can still succeed.”:

Father’s Day 2024 took on a somber note for me this year in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ ban on bump stocks. The ruling was delivered the same week that Newtown, Conn., celebrated its high school graduates — and remembered the 20 students who would have been graduating with the class of 2024 had they not been killed in their classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary School, along with six faculty members, in December 2012. And the Supreme Court handed the decision down on the same day officials began demolishing Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 14 students and three faculty members were killed in a mass shooting in 2018.

I spent this Father’s Day feeling sorrow for the fathers (and mothers, brothers and sisters) who lost children and who will lose sons and daughters in the future. They deserve better than “thoughts and prayers.” It is especially tragic when meaningful action to protect Americans from mass shootings seems thwarted at every turn, whether by our political leaders or by Supreme Court justices who strike down even small efforts by an administrative agency.

Larry K. HouckMcLean

A lack of common sense

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision to strike down the federal bump stock ban imposed by the Trump administration after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history reveals a court sadly divorced from reality.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. admits that the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017 “demonstrated that a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock can have the same lethal effect as a machinegun,” and there is a “need” to ban bump stocks, yet concurs with Justice Clarence Thomas that such a gun is not a machine gun because “forward pressure” is required to keep firing.

Twelve years in the military has taught me that what matters is whether guns kill, not whether guns that fire repeatedly meet a laughably technical definition of machine gun. To paraphrase Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion, when I see a gun that fires like a machine gun, recoils like a machine gun and kills like a machine gun, I call that gun a machine gun.

Alan KennedyWilliamsburg, Va.

Not to mention, time to think

The Post quotes the rate of fire for a bump stock as 400 to 800 rounds per minute, which works out to 0.075 to 0.15 seconds per bullet fired. This is far below the human reaction time for applying the brakes in a car, which the University of Idaho suggests takes up to 2.5 seconds for 90 percent of the population. Presumably, the purpose of having someone squeeze the trigger once per bullet is to make sure the person using the gun has thought about what they are doing for at least a minimum human reaction time. In the case of the bump stock, there is judgment in firing the first shot. But what about all those that follow?

Zachary LevineRockville

Safety for me, but not for thee

I was struck by the last line of E.J. Dionne Jr.’s June 15 op-ed on the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the federal regulation banning semiautomatic rifles equipped with a bump stock. His remark that the justices “will be protected from accountability the next time a mass shooter affixes a bump stock to his weapon and starts firing” reminded me of my reaction after the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision that the Second Amendment protects “an individual’s right to carry a [concealed] handgun for self-defense outside the home,” but not in “‘sensitive places’ where weapons were altogether prohibited — e.g., legislative assemblies, polling places, and courthouses.”

So while handguns and rifles with bump stocks are permitted on our streets, they are not permitted in the very courthouse in which these decisions were made and announced. The justices are not only “protected from accountability.” They are protected from the very threats they have unleashed on the rest of us.

George ChuziMcLean

Get moving, Congress

The Supreme Court ruling that struck down the federal ban on bump stock devices served up an opportunity for advocates of gun safety legislation supported by most Americans.

The Post reported that justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh suggested during oral arguments that “Congress needed to explicitly” ban the devices rather than relying on a machine gun ban, an idea also emphasized by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. in his concurring opinion.

Members of Congress and candidates at every level should seize the moment to trumpet their intentions and to enthusiastically campaign on their plans to address gun violence. Given that, as The Post noted, there were 39 mass shootings in the United States last year, the highest number since 2006, voters from every demographic are through with “thoughts and prayers.” We expect gun violence prevention legislation that will lead to solutions. We are ready to elect legislators who will act with courage on this issue — and to replace those who haven’t and won’t.

Judy FisherFairfax

The justices’ jobs

E.J. Dionne Jr.’s column criticizing the Supreme Court decision involving bump stocks misapprehends the court’s role. He seems to think the court’s job, in this case, was to decide whether bump stocks are a good thing. That is wrong. The court was addressing a statute that banned machine guns. The issue before the court was whether ATF’s ruling that bump stocks converted semiautomatic rifles into machine guns within the meaning of the statute was correct. The court’s job is to rule on whether decisions of the Congress or administrative agencies are lawful. It is not to make gun control policy. Personally, I would have held that the ATF ruling was reasonable and should be upheld under Supreme Court precedent that administrative agency actions should be upheld unless they are unreasonable.

Peter L. FaberNew York

Don’t blame the dictionaries

E.J. Dionne Jr.’s condemnation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Garland v. Cargill captures what feels to many of us like the court’s indifference to the potentially deadly consequences of its decision to strike down regulation of bump stocks.

But no one should believe the conservative justices’ claim that dictionaries made them do it. The majority not only ignored the potential consequences of its decision; it ignored what the text and history of the law Congress passed require as well.

As my organization, the Constitutional Accountability Center, explained in its amicus brief in the case, the key terms in the current statutory definition of “machinegun” — “automatically” and “by a single function of the trigger” — were passed into law in 1934. In the dictionaries from that era, as in our understanding today, those terms plainly encompass a weapon that could continue to fire after the shooter’s single initial pull of the trigger. Bump stocks set off precisely that cycle.

The history of the National Firearms Act confirms what its text makes clear: Congress defined “machine gun” to apply to any gun that fires continuously after the shooter initially pulls the trigger because it was seeking to end exactly the kind of dangerous circumvention of the machine gun ban that bump stock manufacturers exploit today.

Mr. Dionne correctly described this case as an example of the “distorted and radical conservative jurisprudence” coming from the court, and what makes it even worse is that the court’s majority failed to follow its own professed method of interpreting the laws to get there. In other words, the court’s fig leaf of “textualism” doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The bump stock ban didn’t fail because the majority considered only dictionaries, not consequences. The bump stock ban failed because the majority followed only its ideological preferences, not what the dictionaries it looked at actually required.

Nina HenryWashington

The writer is counsel at the Constitutional Accountability Center.

Or hide behind technicalities

In his opinion on allowing bump stocks, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas asserts they are permissible because they do not fire more than one shot with one pull of the trigger. What Justice Thomas is slyly saying is that it’s only important that the trigger mechanically returns after each shot, not that the process is automatic from the perspective of the shooter.

The shooter has to apply only one continuous pull, and the bump stock fires repetitively by forcing the finger off the trigger briefly after each shot so that the trigger can return for another shot. The bump stock is moving the shooter’s trigger finger involuntarily in an oscillatory feedback loop.

The result is that a semiautomatic weapon can fire at the rate of an automatic weapon. Who cares whether the trigger technically returns or not? Certainly not the shooter’s victims or their families.

Dean PoirierLilburn, Ga.