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U.S. Supreme Court overturns federal ban on gun bump stocks


Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said yesterday that he will bring a new ban on bump stocks to a vote this week. These are devices that allow semi-automatic guns to fire at speeds close to those of a machine gun.

You'll remember that the ban was put in place after the device was used in the Las Vegas shooting about seven years ago that killed 60 people at a country music show. Last Friday, though, the U.S. Supreme Court repealed the rule, saying the federal agency that regulates firearms overstepped its authority when it banned bump stocks a year after that shooting in Las Vegas.

David Cole is with us now to talk about this - in particular, what the Supreme Court is saying about the power of administrative federal agencies. Mr. Cole is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Good morning, Professor.

DAVID COLE: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So just to clarify, the decision was not about the Second Amendment. It was about the reach of a federal statute. So just say more about that.

COLE: Right. Well, nobody questions the constitutionality of the law that prohibits possession of machine guns. And the - so the question here was simply, what does that law cover? Does it include semi-automatic rifles that, when combined with a bump stock, enable a shooter to, you know, unleash 500 to 800 rounds with a single pull of the trigger in a minute?

MARTIN: So the ruling seemed based on this technical function of a bump stock in firearms. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion, and he mentioned that on more than 10 separate occasions, the alcohol, tobacco and firearms agency acknowledged that bump stocks did not qualify as machine guns. So how much of this ruling was about telling Congress that this is your job, create the legislation? But how much of it was about the way guns actually work or what gun devices people are allowed to own and use?

COLE: Well, I think the basic disagreement between the majority and the dissent was, what does Congress mean when it defines a machine gun as a gun that fires multiple rounds automatically with a, quote, "single function of the trigger"? That's the language. And the majority says, well, we have to look inside the mechanism of the gun to determine what the function of the trigger is. And if it's moving back and forth inside the gun effectively many, many times, then that's not a single function of the trigger.

The dissent says, no, single function of the trigger is about whether the shooter has pulled the trigger once, and that's what a bump stock does. It allows a shooter to pull the trigger once and fire 500 to 800 rounds. That's really - you know, and so the question is, what does single function of the trigger mean? They disagreed about what that means.

And I - you know, I think if you disagree about - if it's unclear what that means, then there's two things you can do. One is you can say, what did Congress intend? Was Congress' concern here with the internal workings of guns? Or was Congress's concern with people having an item that they can pull a trigger once on and unleash 500 to 800 rounds? And the dissent said the latter. The majority said the former, which then, you know, leaves people free to turn their AR-15s into machine guns.

MARTIN: So Justice Samuel Alito penned his own opinion. Nobody else joined it, but he suggested that Congress could change the law on bump stocks, which is something that President Biden has also endorsed. Would that be constitutional in your view?

COLE: Absolutely. That would be constitutional. The question is whether it's politically feasible. And you'd think, you know, and - notwithstanding how divided we are in this country today, we ought to be able to come together on the notion that we should stop people like the Las Vegas shooter from being able to unleash 500 to 800 rounds in a minute with a single pull of the trigger. But the fact that this court divided absolutely along political lines on that legal - technical legal question suggests that it may be difficult in Congress as well.

MARTIN: And why is that, though? I guess I'm still trying to sort of understand. Do they really have that fundamental difference in the point of view of sort of the technical functioning of this device, or is it something else here?

COLE: Well, you have to think - I mean, you know, function of the trigger is the language, and there are two readings of that. Why is it that all the Republicans adopted one view and all the Democrats adopted another? And it seems to me it's driven by this concern about the government regulating guns at all.

MARTIN: That is David Cole, professor at Georgetown University's law school and the legal director at the ACLU. Professor Cole, thanks so much for joining us.

COLE: Thanks for having me Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.