Bump Stocks Now Legal Again As Supreme Court Strikes Down Trump-Era Gun Device Ban

Gun Rights

Topline

The Supreme Court struck down Friday a Trump-era federal ban on bump stocks that allow firearms to mimic automatic rifles, tearing down one of the few major federal moves on gun control in recent years after the devices came under scrutiny following the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting.

Key Facts

Justices ruled 6-3 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) exceeded its authority when it decided bump stocks are classified as “machine guns” and can thus be outlawed under federal law.

Firearm owner Michael Cargill asked the Supreme Court to determine whether a bump stock device is classified as a “machinegun” under federal law, after the ATF classified them as such in 2018—banning bump stocks after they were used in the deadly Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017.

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Bump stocks are devices that replace the stock of a semi-automatic rifle with a sliding stock and trigger guard, meaning that when a shooter pulls the trigger, the recoil action of the gun and the sliding stock move the gun back and forth, repeatedly “bumping” the shooter’s finger against the trigger at a high speed so that shots can be fired quicker—and mimicking the action of a machine gun.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court’s majority that since federal law defines a machine gun as a firearm that can shoot “automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger,” the agency exceeded its authority in banning bump stocks, because the devices don’t shoot automatically and the trigger is repeatedly “bumped” by the shooter’s finger.

Thomas noted even with a bump stock, “As with any semiautomatic firearm, the trigger still must be released and reengaged to fire each additional shot,” arguing that the device just “accelerate[s] the rate of fire” and does not do anything automatically, as machine guns would.

The court’s 6-3 ruling was split along ideological lines, and in a dissent joined by the court’s other liberal justices, Justice Sonia Sotomayor disputed Thomas’ claims about bump stocks, arguing the majority’s ruling “enables gun users and manufacturers to circumvent federal law” and that bump stocks should be classified as machine guns because “with a single pull of the trigger, a shooter can … fire continuous shots without any human input beyond maintaining forward pressure.”

Chief Critic

“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 wrote in her dissent, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson. “A bump-stock-equipped semiautomatic rifle fires ‘automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.’ Because I, like Congress, call that a machinegun, I respectfully dissent.”

Big Number

60. That’s how many people were killed in the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, in which a bump stock device was used as the shooter opened fire at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival, and more than 850 were injured. The massacre is the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Key Background

Bump stocks became a rare case of both sides of the aisle approving gun control measures in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, as the devices came under scrutiny following the tragedy. Even some Republicans supported restricting the devices. Then-President Donald Trump called on the DOJ to restrict them in 2018, and the National Rifle Association initially supported efforts to regulate bump stocks, though it’s now backing Cargill at the Supreme Court. The ATF long classified bump stocks as being legal under federal law because of the “single function of a trigger” definition that Thomas cited, before reversing course in 2018. The case is one of several high-profile gun rights cases that have come before the Supreme Court in recent years, as the high court issued a sweeping ruling in 2022 that struck down New York’s concealed carry law and made it harder for lawmakers to enact gun control regulations. The court is also considering this term whether it should be possible for domestic abusers to own firearms in the case U.S. v. Rahimi.

Surprising Fact

The manufacturers of bump stocks initially claimed that their devices were made to help people with disabilities who might otherwise have trouble shooting a gun, the Associated Press noted in 2017, with the ATF saying in a 2010 letter to manufacturer Slide Fire Solutions that the company claimed their product “is intended to assist persons whose hands have limited mobility.” Bump stock creators were making other claims to specialist gun publications, however, with Slide Fire inventor Jeremiah Cottle telling outlets he made bump stocks for other gun enthusiasts who wanted to shoot more powerfully. Bump stocks are intended for “people, like me, [who] love full auto,” Cottle told Ammoland in 2016.

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