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Gun control advocates worry about the impact of the Supreme Court's latest ruling


Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Trump-era ban on bump stocks. That's a kind of attachment for semi-automatic rifles that makes it possible to fire hundreds of rounds a minute. That's the speed of a machine gun, which most Americans are not allowed to own. But now with this decision, they can own a bump stock. NPR's Martin Kaste has followed this story for the past few years. Hey, Martin.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Good morning, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: All right, so first explain what a bump stock is, for those who don't know.

KASTE: So picture a semiautomatic rifle. Now, when you shoot it, it recoils. And what the bump stock does is it kind of captures that motion and fires the gun for you over and over again by sort of capturing that bouncing action when it's up against your shoulder. You're holding your finger on the trigger, and it's kind of moving the gun around the trigger. And so what basically happens is the trigger is moving very fast, but you're not doing it. The gun is doing it. You basically spray a lot of bullets really fast. The gun is hard to aim, but some people apparently seem to enjoy just sort of spraying a lot of bullets downrange really fast.

KURTZLEBEN: But also, bump stocks were used in that 2017 Las Vegas massacre, right?

KASTE: Right. That was really a turning point for bump stocks. It was a horrible situation where this man set up in a high hotel room window looking down over a music festival. And he used rifles with bump stocks to just send a torrent of bullets kind of indiscriminately down into this crowd, quickly killing 58 people at the time, wounding more than 400. And that's the incident that moved the Trump administration to ban these devices.

KURTZLEBEN: So now the Supreme Court has overturned that ban. What is their reasoning for that?

KASTE: Well, it's about legal semantics - the technical definition of a machine gun. Federal laws says a machine gun is something that fires multiple rounds with, quote, "a single function of the trigger." Note, that's not a pull of the trigger, it's a function of the trigger. And with a bump stock, the trigger is moving around a lot. It's just you pull it once, but the trigger is moving as the gun moves. That, the court says, is enough of a difference that the ATF was wrong to call a bump stock a machine gun as defined by the law.

KURTZLEBEN: So how much of an effect will this have on how people use guns in America? Do we know that right now?

KASTE: Well, this is a ruling about regulations. It's not about the Second Amendment. So this ruling does not stop the states from banning bump stocks. More than a dozen states do, and those bans should stay in place. The court has said that Congress could step in here and amend the law to expand the definition of machine gun to include bump stocks.

It should also be noted that besides that horrific example in Las Vegas, bump stocks aren't appearing a lot in criminal acts. Of the roughly half million or so of these that have reportedly been sold before the ban, most of them are used on gun ranges or out in the woods by people who just burn up a lot of ammo.

The vast majority of murders with guns in this country are committed by people with handguns, not rifles with bump stocks. But there is a device on the handguns that people should probably be more worried about - the police certainly are, and those are Glock switches or auto-sears. That's another device that modifies handguns and lets them shoot very fast. Those have become a growing problem in cities, but this ruling does not overturn any restrictions on those.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, I'm curious about gun control advocates. How are they reacting to this ruling?

KASTE: In a broad sense, they don't like the fact that the court was so willing to throw out this ban based on this narrow technical rationale. They're also kind of spooked by the fact that the court seems to be intent on limiting the powers of agencies to interpret laws when definitions are imprecise. They're worried that that could affect things like the limitations on ghost guns. Those are those untraceable guns without serial numbers that are sometimes made from kits. The ATF sees them as illegal right now, but some gun safety people think that that could be at risk here now with this ruling by the Supreme Court.

KURTZLEBEN: That's NPR's Martin Kaste. Martin, thank you so much.

KASTE: You're welcome. 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.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.