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Opinion: Supreme Court’s bump stock decision is a huge step backward


Opinion by Dominic Erdozain

(CNN) — When machine guns became available to civilians in the US in the 1920s, the public reaction was swift and emphatic. The presence of such weapons, protested journalist Owen P. White in 1926, was “the paramount example of peace-time barbarism.” The Thompson machine gun, so light and so deadly, was the perfect contrivance for the murder of fellow citizens. There was, he added, something “diabolical” in the invention, let alone the availability, of such an object. In 1934, the notorious “Tommy” guns were banned by Congress, and automatic gunfire disappeared from America’s streets.

In 2013, a company called Slide Fire Solutions introduced a device called a “bump stock” that enabled a semi-automatic assault rifle to behave like a fully automatic one — dancing around the prohibition against machine guns with nonchalant dexterity. “It sprays like a fire hose,” announced Brandon Renner, sales and marketing manager for Slide Fire. “We recommend no more than 30 rounds on the belt, but one person could make it as big as they want,” he advised.

Four years later, in October 2017, Stephen Paddock, a retired accountant, did precisely that when he rained gunfire on concertgoers in Las Vegas, killing 58 people, and injuring about 500 others with that very product. The massacre was the deadliest in US history and it was perpetrated by a single man with legally acquired equipment. Then-President Donald Trump called for a ban, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) amended its regulations to include bump stocks within the category of machine guns. This was a rare moment of progress in a bruising gun debate — a collective sigh of “enough.” Slide Fire Solutions ceased production and even the most pessimistic observers of the gun crisis could agree that there were limits. Or not.

On Friday, in a display of smoldering defiance and bewildering logic, the Supreme Court overruled the Trump-era federal bump stock ban, charging the ATF with an “abrupt” reversal of its own criteria. Writing with the anxious solicitude of a parent defending a child, Justice Clarence Thomas delivered a hard, technical reading of the term “machine gun” and duly exempted the bump stock from its greedy clutch. Americans should be alarmed by the decision and the contortions of language with which it was achieved. The court is taking us backwards.

The finding in Garland v. Cargill is that the ATF lacks authority to proscribe the sale of bump stocks because they do not qualify as machine guns under the terms of the National Firearms Act of 1934. There, a machine gun was defined as a weapon that can shoot more than one shot automatically, without manual reloading “by a single function of the trigger.” This phrase, which appears more than 30 times in the opinion, is the crux of Thomas’ argument, as he defends the court’s decision to legalize the deadly devices.

Yes, Thomas agrees, bump stocks allow assault rifles to discharge bullets at a terrifying velocity, up to hundreds of rounds per minute. But while a bump stock simulates the action of a machine gun, it still requires the trigger to be compressed and released — albeit very rapidly and under the force of the weapon’s recoil. As such, it does not meet the technical definition of a machine gun as one that fires by one “single” movement of the trigger. And here we enter a forest of semantics.

By applying continuous pressure to the bump stock, admits Thomas, the gun will fire rapidly and seemingly continuously. But this is not automatic fire, he contended; only the sense and illusion of automatic gunfire. For the trigger still has to move back and forth. The bump stock makes it happen, turning an average shooter into a lightning-fingered virtuoso. Yet all of this is extrinsic. It is the manipulation of a perfectly innocent assault rifle. It does not change the thing at its core. The user may only have the sensation of operating a machine gun, Thomas reasons, but since the rapidity comes from a part of the weapon that is not called “the trigger,” the court cannot recognize it as a machine gun. And that is it.

The case is cemented with quotations from the Oxford English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary, which tells us that a trigger is “the lever pressed by the finger to discharge a firearm.” None of which will mean much to the concertgoers of that Las Vegas music festival in 2017.

This is what we have come to: a crusading literalism, proudly defiant of the meaning and intention of the law. In the oral argument, Thomas acknowledged that the original drive to ban machine guns was prompted by the carnage they caused and — as he put it — “people dying, et cetera.” Yet none of this is allowed to encroach on the sacred ground of the text, as he wishes to interpret it. Far more persuasive is Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s candid inference that: “A bump-stock-equipped semi-automatic rifle is a machinegun because, with a single pull of the trigger, a shooter can fire continuous shots without any human input beyond maintaining forward pressure.”

The court’s ability to conjure an argument from its antithesis is nothing new.

This is the same method that was used in the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller decision of 2008 — when the right to bear arms in the state militia became a right to own a gun for self-defense. There, as here, it was dictionaries and the presumed logic of words — rather than history itself — that defined the meaning. Under this paradigm, nothing is safe. And nor are we.

There is something reckless in a Supreme Court that can annihilate gun laws by pulling at words, toying with phrases. There are many reasons to think about reforming the higher court. Decisions like this ought to be high among them.

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