Supreme Court weighs Trump ban on gun ‘bump stocks’

Gun Rights

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments on whether the federal government had the authority to ban “bump stocks,” a gun accessory that allows semi-automatic rifles to fire more quickly.

A bump stock and handguns collected during a buyback event in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles on March 4, 2023.
A bump stock and handguns collected during a buyback event in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles on March 4, 2023. Jill Connelly / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The prohibition was imposed by the Trump administration after the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017 in which Stephen Paddock used bump stock-equipped firearms to open fire on a country music festival, initially killing 58 people.

The Supreme Court in 2019 declined to block the regulation. The already conservative court has tilted further to the right since then, with conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump appointee, replacing liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in 2020.

The case before the court concerns Texas-based gun owner and licensed dealer Michael Cargill, who owned two bump stocks before the ban went into effect and later surrendered them to the government. He sued, claiming that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lacked the legal authority to implement the prohibition.

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Bump stocks use the recoil energy of a trigger pull to enable the user to fire up to hundreds of rounds with what the federal government calls “a single motion.”

Cargill’s lawyers say it is a difficult skill to master.

“The key to successful bump firing is administering continual and rapid forward thrusts on the barrel or front grip of the rifle with the non-trigger hand while keeping the trigger finger stationary despite the rifle’s recoil,” they wrote in court papers.

Some gun rights advocates, including the National Rifle Association, initially backed the Trump move to regulate bump stocks after the Las Vegas shooting, but have since lined up in opposition to it.

“It’s a significant public safety issue,” said Eric Tirschwell, a lawyer with the legal arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for gun restrictions. “We saw what happened in Las Vegas. Bump stocks hold the capacity to multiply mass shootings in a way that should really scare all of us.”

The case does not implicate the scope of the right to bear arms under the Constitution’s Second Amendment. The challengers argue that the government does not have the authority to ban bump stocks under the National Firearms Act, a law enacted in 1934 to regulate machine guns.

The 1968 Gun Control Act defined “machine gun” to include accessories “for use in converting a weapon” into a machine gun, and the ATF concluded that bump stocks meet that definition.

The plaintiffs challenging the ban said the legal definition of machine gun has been distorted beyond recognition and argued that courts should not defer to the federal agency’s interpretation.

Lower courts are divided on the issue, with both the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the ban was unlawful.

The Biden administration appealed in both those cases, while gun rights advocates are contesting a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that upheld the ban.

Notwithstanding the ban currently being in effect, Bumpstock.com, operated by bump stock inventor Jeremiah Cottle, says it will currently ship to the seven states covered by the 5th Circuit and 6th Circuit decisions: Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Asked if he would plan to sell the product in other states if the rule is struck down, Cottle said in an interview that it would depend on how the justices rule.

“I want to see what the Supreme Court does. I’m not putting the cart before the horse,” he added. Cottle, who said he has sold about 100 bump stocks following the recent court rulings, plans to attend the oral arguments Wednesday.

ATF spokeswoman Kristina Mastropasqua said that despite the court rulings, bump stocks for now remain “classified as machine guns” nationwide. As a result, they remain banned.

Even if the regulation is overturned, bump stocks would still not be available nationwide, with 18 states already banning them, according to Everytown. Congress could also take action.

The court has backed gun rights in cases directly addressing the scope of the Second Amendment, including the 2022 ruling that found there is a right to carry a handgun outside the home.

But in a case argued in November, the court indicated it might stop short of striking down some long-standing gun laws in a case involving a ban on people accused of domestic violence possessing firearms.

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