Supreme Court Rejects Federal Ban On Gun ‘Bump Stocks’

Ban on gun stocks

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday declared a federal ban on “bump stock” devices unlawful. These devices enable semiautomatic weapons to fire rapidly like machine guns. The justices, in a 6-3 ruling authored by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, upheld a lower court’s decision favoring Michael Cargill, a gun shop owner and gun rights advocate from Austin, Texas. Cargill challenged the ban, claiming that a U.S. agency improperly interpreted a federal law banning machine guns to include bump stocks. The conservative justices formed the majority, while the liberal justices dissented.

The Trump administration imposed the rule in 2019 after the devices were used during a 2017 mass shooting that killed 58 people at a Las Vegas country music festival. Democratic President Joe Biden, whose administration defended the rule in court, criticized the decision, stating that it “strikes down an important gun safety regulation.” Biden emphasized, “Americans should not have to live in fear of this mass devastation,” and urged Congress to ban bump stocks and pass an assault weapon ban, promising to sign such legislation immediately.

Trump, challenging Biden in the Nov. 5 U.S. election, had a campaign spokesperson, Karoline Leavitt, respond to the ruling by saying, “The court has spoken and their decision should be respected,” and described Trump as a “fierce defender” of gun rights.

The case focused on how the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a U.S. Justice Department agency, interpreted a federal law called the National Firearms Act. This act defines machine guns as weapons that can “automatically” fire more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger.” Thomas stated, “We hold that a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not a ‘machine gun’ because it cannot fire more than one shot ‘by a single function of the trigger.’” He added that even if it could, it would not do so “automatically.” Therefore, the ATF exceeded its statutory authority by issuing a rule that classifies bump stocks as machine guns.

Federal law prohibits the sale or possession of machine guns, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Bump stocks use a semiautomatic’s recoil to allow it to slide back and forth, “bumping” the shooter’s trigger finger, resulting in rapid fire. Federal officials had argued that the rule was necessary to protect public safety amid persistent firearms violence.

In a dissent, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that the ruling would have “deadly consequences,” accusing the majority of embracing an “artificially narrow definition” of a machine gun and allowing gun users and manufacturers to circumvent the law. She stated, “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.” Sotomayor noted that after the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the Trump administration had prohibited bump stocks, reversing the ATF’s previous stance that bump stocks were covered by the National Firearms Act.

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito, in a concurring opinion, noted that the 2017 shooting did not change the statutory text or its meaning. “That event demonstrated that a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock can have the same lethal effect as a machine gun, and it thus strengthened the case for amending existing law,” he said. Alito urged Congress to act now that the situation is clear.

The Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, has taken an expansive view of gun rights, striking down gun restrictions in major cases in 2008, 2010, and 2022. In the 2022 decision, the Court struck down New York state’s limits on carrying concealed handguns outside the home and set a tough new standard for determining the legality of gun regulations. Unlike those three cases, this one did not center on the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

Mark Chenoweth, president of the conservative legal group New Civil Liberties Alliance that represented Cargill, praised the ruling, saying, “The statute Congress passed did not ban bump stocks, and ATF does not have the power to do so on its own.” John Feinblatt, president of the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, urged Congress to outlaw bump stocks. He argued, “Guns outfitted with bump stocks fire like machine guns, they kill like machine guns, and they should be banned like machine guns – but the Supreme Court just decided to put these deadly devices back on the market.”

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year sided with Cargill. The United States remains deeply divided over how to address gun violence, which Biden has called a “national embarrassment.” While Biden and many Democrats favor tougher gun restrictions, Republicans often oppose them. In this case, a Republican administration implemented the rule.

The justices also plan to rule by the end of June in another gun rights case. They heard arguments in November over the legality of a federal law that makes it a crime for people under domestic violence restraining orders to have guns.