Sotomayor Warns Supreme Court’s Bump Stock Ruling Will Have ‘Deadly Consequences’


Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor warned that the high court’s decision to lift a federal agency’s ban on bump stocks that was put into place after the 2017 Las Vegas massacre would have “deadly consequences.”

The Las Vegas shooter used bump stocks, simple devices that attach to a semiautomatic rifle and create an effect similar to that of a machine gun, to kill 60 people and injure more than 850 others. Then-President Donald Trump instructed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to implement a ban in response to the tragedy.

But in a 6-3 ruling issued Friday, the Supreme Court said that Congress needed to act to ban bump stocks, and that the ATF had exceeded its authority. The case, Garland v. Cargill, focused on the power of regulatory agencies rather than the Second Amendment.

Congress banned machine guns back in 1934 in response to well-publicized incidents of gang violence that involved weapons like Tommy guns and M16s.

“Congress’s definition of ‘machine gun’ encompasses bump stocks just as naturally as M16s,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissent.

“Today’s decision to reject that ordinary understanding will have deadly consequences,” she said. “The majority’s artificially narrow definition hamstrings the Government’s efforts to keep machine guns from gunmen like the Las Vegas shooter.”

Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson joined in the dissent.

President Joe Biden recalled how the Las Vegas shooter was able to use bump stocks to fire “more than 1000 bullets in just ten minutes, killing 60, wounding hundreds, and traumatizing countless Americans.”

“Americans should not have to live in fear of this mass devastation,” Biden said, calling on Congress to act.

The majority, led in their opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, argued that a bump stock does not technically transform a semiautomatic rifle into a machine gun “by a single function of the trigger,” which is the phrasing Congress used in the 1934 National Firearms Act.

A bump stock allows the shooter to, in one squeezing motion, spray bullets at rates approaching machine gun fire — rates that far exceed what even an experienced shooter can accomplish by pulling the trigger really fast.

“This is not a hard case. All of the textual evidence points to the same interpretation,” Sotomayor wrote.

She compared what happened when a person fired an M16 to what happened when a person fired an AR-15 with a bump stock attached.

“Both shooters pull the trigger only once to fire multiple shots. The only difference is that for an M16, the shooter’s backward pressure makes the rifle fire continuously because of an internal mechanism: The curved lever of the trigger does not move. In a bump-stock-equipped AR–15, the mechanism for continuous fire is external: The shooter’s forward pressure moves the curved lever back and forth against his stationary trigger finger,” she said.

She suggested the majority was actually overcomplicating the issue, writing: “Its interpretation requires six diagrams and an animation to decipher the meaning of the statutory text.”

Sotomayor explained further:

A shooter can fire a bump-stock-equipped semiautomatic rifle in two ways. First, he can choose to fire single shots via distinct pulls of the trigger without exerting any additional pressure. Second, he can fire continuously via maintaining constant forward pressure on the barrel or front grip. The majority holds that the forward pressure cannot constitute a “single function of the trigger” because a shooter can also fire single shots by pulling the trigger. That logic, however, would also exclude a Tommy Gun and an M16, the paradigmatic examples of regulated machine guns in 1934 and today. Both weapons can fire either automatically or semiautomatically.

She put it in even simpler language at another point: “When I see a bird that walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.”