Supreme Court rules gun ‘bump stocks’ ban is unlawful

Gun Rights

WASHINGTON — In a loss for the Biden administration, the Supreme Court ruled Friday that a federal ban on “bump stocks,” gun accessories that allow semiautomatic rifles to fire more quickly, is unlawful.

In a 6-3 ruling on ideological lines, with the court’s conservatives in the majority, the court held that an almost 100-year-old law aimed at banning machine guns cannot legitimately be interpreted to include bump stocks.

Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said that a firearm equipped with the accessory does not meet the definition of “machinegun” under federal law.

A bump fire stock that attaches to a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing rate is seen at Good Guys Gun Shop in Orem
A bump stock,left, displayed at Good Guys Gun Shop in Orem, Utah, on Oct. 4, 2017. George Frey / Reuters file

The ruling prompted a vigorous dissent from liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

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“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,” she wrote in reference to bump stocks enabling semiautomatic rifles to operate like machine guns. Sotomayor also took the rare step of reading a summary of her dissent in court.

Even with the federal ban out of the picture, bump stocks will still not be readily available nationwide. Eighteen states have already banned them, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit gun-control group. Congress could also act.

Nevertheless, gun control advocates decried the ruling.

“We’ve seen bump stocks cause immense destruction and violence,” said Esther Sanchez-Gomez, litigation director at Giffords Law Center. “The majority of justices today sided with the gun lobby instead of the safety of the American people. This is a shameful decision.”

The Trump administration imposed the prohibition 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. Then-President Donald Trump personally called for the accessory to be banned.

Sotomayor cited the Las Vegas shooting in her dissent.

“All he had to do was pull the trigger and press the gun forward. The bump stock did the rest,” she wrote.

The ruling, she added, “hamstrings the government’s efforts to keep machineguns from gunmen like the Las Vegas shooter.”

In a concurring opinion, conservative Justice Samuel Alito, conceded that in practical terms, a weapon equipped with a bump stock is very similar to a machine gun and said Congress could act to ban the accessory.

The “horrible shooting spree” in Las Vegas showed how “a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock can have the same lethal effect as a machinegun,” strengthening the case for legislative action, he added.

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.

Conservatives now have a 6-3 majority that has backed gun rights in previous cases.

The National Firearms Act was enacted in 1934 to regulate machine guns in response to Prohibition-era gangster violence.

The lawsuit was brought by Texas-based gun owner Michael Cargill, a licensed dealer who owned two bump stocks before the ban went into effect and later surrendered them to the government.

“Over five years ago I swore I would defend the Constitution of the United States, even if I was the only plaintiff in the case. I did just that,” he said in a statement responding to the ruling.

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.

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

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 1934 law.

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.

Much of the legal fight hinged on the definition of machine gun as a weapon that can automatically fire more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger.”

The government argued that the phrase refers to the actions of the shooter, with a single action required to fire multiple shots. Cargill’s lawyers argued that it refers to the action inside the firearm when the trigger is engaged. Because a bump stock still requires the trigger to be engaged for each shot, it is not a machine gun, they argued.

The Supreme Court embraced Cargill’s argument, with Thomas writing that a firearm equipped with a bump stock does not become a machine gun because “it cannot fire more than one shot” with a single function of the trigger.

“ATF therefore exceeded its statutory authority by issuing a rule that classifies bump stocks as machineguns,” he added.

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

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

The Supreme 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 possessing firearms by people accused of domestic violence.

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