Senate Democrats want to restore a Trump-era bump stock ban. The push failed.

Gun Rights

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WASHINGTON – Days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Trump administration ban on bump stocks, Senate Democrats sought speedy passage of a bill that would outlaw the gun modification that makes it possible for semi-automatic rifles to shoot faster. 

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., sponsored the bill to ban bump stocks, which were used in the 2017 shooting in Las Vegas that killed 60 people, making it the deadliest mass shooting in American history. But Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., blocked it Tuesday afternoon, saying it was “vague” and “overreaching,” and would limit access to common firearm accessories, not just bump stocks.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., sought to pass the bill by “unanimous consent” – that’s a tool the Senate can use to pass legislation quickly if all senators agree. It only takes one person to object and force lawmakers to try to pass the bill the traditional way. 

Schumer said in a speech Tuesday that most Republicans supported former President Donald Trump’s ban on bump stocks, “so they should support this bill today.”

“I implore my Republican colleagues not to stand in the way of today’s bill,” he said. “Because if we can pass it today, we’ll be one step closer to ensuring that a tragedy like what happened in Las Vegas never happens again.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., told USA TODAY that there is some disagreement from Republicans over a provision of the bill that would require people who currently own guns outfitted with bump stocks to register them – but, “I think that those are surmountable.”

The bill covers policy that was passed in the Trump administration, he said, so if Schumer wanted to rally support for the bill among Republicans, he probably could with a longer conversation. He said Republicans weren’t looped in on the quick vote Democrats have proposed.

“I think we’re in a time frame now where Schumer’s not really interested in passing the bill, because if he did, he would know to lay the groundwork for passage in the House and … actually do the work,” he said. “He’s basically chosen to do shirts and skins and messaging.”

Why did the Supreme Court overturn Donald Trump’s ban?

A year after the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives under Trump determined that bump stocks meet the legal definition of a machine gun – which are illegal to own in the United States unless it was purchased before 1986.

The bump stock harnesses the recoil of the rifle to accelerate trigger pulls, technically “bumping” the trigger for each shot after it bounces off the shooter’s shoulder. They were on more than half of the shooter’s guns during the Las Vegas attack and allowed him to fire more than 1,100 rounds of ammunition in 10 minutes.

Guns rights advocates challenged the ban, which ended up before the Supreme Court this year. But the legal question wasn’t about whether it violates the 2nd Amendment, which protects Americans’ right to “keep and bear arms.” Instead, the justices considered a technical question of whether a bump stock affixed to a semi-automatic rifle actually does meet the definition of a machine gun, which allows a weapon to continually fire if the shooter holds down the trigger.

A 6-3 majority determined along ideological lines that a bump stock wouldn’t continually fire without “ongoing manual input,” overturning the ban.

A not-so-‘simple remedy’

In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito last week said there is “little doubt” that the Congress that banned machine guns wouldn’t have seen a difference “between a machine gun and a semi-automatic rifle” equipped with a bump stock. But he joined the majority “because there is simply no other way to read” the law that the Supreme Court cited as it overturned the Trump-era ban.

“There is a simple remedy,” he added. “Congress can amend the law.”

However, it’s never been simple to get gun legislation through Congress, which is deeply divided and routinely receives millions of dollars in campaign funding from gun rights groups. While lawmakers aren’t bound by their donors, the dynamic can be a major presence in Washington.

Efforts to pass similar legislation in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting faced opposition from the National Rifle Association, which is why the Trump administration turned to administrative action, though the NRA publicly said it supported additional regulations on bump stocks in 2017.

Congress has struggled to pass significant legislation to regulate guns despite devastating mass shootings over the last several decades. But lawmakers did pass a bipartisan bill in 2022, marking the most significant piece of gun control legislation in about 30 years.

That law, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, included funding for states to implement “red flag” laws that take guns away from people who have been deemed a danger to themselves or others. It also funded mental health programs and efforts to make schools more secure, and closed what was called the “boyfriend loophole” so that people convicted of domestic abuse can be prevented from buying a gun even if they aren’t married to or living with their victim.

Contributing: Maureen Groppe and Nick Penzenstadler.

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