Trump and the NRA counted on the Supreme Court to keep bump stocks legal

Gun Rights

WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump didn’t really want to ban bump stocks. When he did, he knew the Supreme Court was likely to overturn his action.

In a 6-3 decision Friday, that’s exactly what the justices did.

The ruling revealed Trump’s true feelings on the issue after a seven-year political drama, as he accepted a court reversing him with his spokesperson saying that Americans should respect the decision.

It is possible that the Supreme Court — at a lower level but in similar fashion to its decision to overturn abortion rights — will unleash a backlash that helps President Joe Biden and hurts Trump in their November rematch.

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But for the time being, Trump’s strategy for sidestepping a lasting response to the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting appears to have played to plan.

In the immediate aftermath of that massacre, which claimed 58 lives and resulted in hundreds of injuries, Trump found himself faced with a thorny political dilemma.

Shocked and outraged by the murders, roughly 4 in 5 Americans said that the government should cut off access to bump stocks, the style of shoulder-pad device that allowed the killer, Stephen Paddock, to fire a semi-automatic rifle at the speed of a fully automatic weapon. Democrats, then in the minority in both chambers, demanded congressional action, and some Republican lawmakers agreed with them.

Trump was faced with an unpalatable choice: do nothing and alienate mainstream voters or push Congress to legislate a ban, which would infuriate some gun-rights voters in the GOP’s base and highlight divisions within his own party.

Republican lawmakers said he would be able to muscle a law through Congress if he chose that route. “Nobody gives me more cover in my district than Donald Trump,” then-Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., said at the time. “They believe in Donald Trump and they believe that if he thinks [bump stocks] should be illegal, they should be illegal.”

Trump found a third option that lowered the temperature on the gun-control debate in the short term — robbing momentum from congressional efforts to ban bump stocks — and kicked the issue to a conservative-leaning Supreme Court.

Taking a cue from the National Rifle Association, Trump used his executive authority to write a Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives regulation banning bump stocks.

“I went with them,” Trump said of the NRA in a 2023 interview on CNN.

Like him, the gun lobby’s biggest player wanted to avoid both a new firearm-control law and the perception of inaction in the face of the Las Vegas massacre. It would be harder to repeal a law than roll back a regulation, and the legislative process is messy enough that a new law might have ended up including other restrictions on firearms.

Top executives at the NRA said the ATF should look at whether bump stocks conformed to federal law.

“The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations,” Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox, then of the NRA, said in a statement at the time, stopping short of explicitly concluding that bump stocks in fact do just that.

It was exactly that language that Justice Clarence Thomas homed in on in writing Friday’s majority opinion.

“This case asks whether a bump stock — an accessory for a semiautomatic rifle that allows the shooter to rapidly reengage the trigger (and therefore achieve a high rate of fire) — converts the rifle into a ‘machine gun,'” Thomas wrote. “We hold that it does not.”

Trump has shown no compunction about attacking courts and their officers when he believes he didn’t get his way. He didn’t do that at all on Friday. Rather than commenting directly when the opinion was made public, Trump let his campaign do the talking. A statement released by campaign spokesperson Karoline Leavitt preached deference to the justices.

“The court has spoken and their decision should be respected,” she said,” calling Trump a “fierce defender” of gun rights. And, she noted, he carries the endorsement of the NRA.

Trump followed the gun lobby’s lead in relying on the court to ensure that shooters have access to bump stocks. It took seven years for that plan to come together. But it did.

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