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Divided High Court: Law Doesn't Permit Ban On 'Bump Stocks'

The Supreme Court on Friday overturned a federal ban on "bump stocks," which can allow semiautomatic weapons to fire rapidly, like machine guns.

The ruling was a defeat for federal gun regulations, which have had a mixed record in Congress amid strong opposition by Second Amendment advocates.

The federal bump stock ban was instituted by the administration of former President Donald Trump after the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, when a shooter using guns equipped with bump stocks killed 58 attendees of an outdoor music festival and injured hundreds more.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the 6-to-3 opinion for the court's conservative justices, with the three liberal justices dissenting.

Thomas said that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had long held that bump stock were not covered by the federal ban on machine guns.

Thomas said ATF "abruptly reversed course" in response to the Las Vegas shooting, in which the gunman fired "hundreds of rounds in a matter of minutes."

According to USA Today, "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. A rifle can then fire between 400 and 800 rounds per minute."

The 2018 federal rule was challenged by Texas gun owner Michael Cargill, who Thomas said "surrendered two bump stocks to ATF under protest." Cargill said ATF lacked legal authority to ban bump stocks, a view that was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

After a detailed analysis of how the bump stock mechanism works, Thomas concluded that "a bump stock does not convert a semiautomatic rifle into a machine gun any more than a shooter with a lightning-fast trigger finger does. Even with a bump stock, a semiautomatic rifle will fire only one shot for every 'function of the trigger.'” So, a bump stock cannot qualify as a machine gun."

Thomas also said that, "even if a semiautomatic rifle could fire more than one shot by a single function of the trigger, it would not do so 'automatically.,' "

In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito, citing the use of bump stocks in "the horrible shooting spree in Las Vegas," wrote, "There is a simple remedy for the [law's] disparate treatment of bump stocks and machine guns. Congress can amend the law—and perhaps would have done so already if ATF had stuck with its earlier interpretation. Now that the situation is clear, Congress can act."

In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, "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. A bump-stock-equipped semiautomatic rifle fires “automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger” ... I call that a machine gun."

Sotomayor said that Congress’s definition of “machinegun” [the Justices use the phrase as one word] "encompasses bump stocks just as naturally as M16s. Just like a person can shoot “automatically more than one shot” with an M16 through a “single function of the trigger” if he maintains continuous backward pressure on the trigger, he can do the same with a bump-stock-equipped semiautomatic rifle if he maintains forward pressure on the gun."

The dissent concluded that the majority opinion "will have deadly consequences. The majority’s artificially narrow definition hamstrings the Government’s efforts to keep machine guns from gunmen like the Las Vegas shooter."

John Feinblatt of the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety commented, “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. We urge Congress to right this wrong and pass bipartisan legislation banning bump stocks, which are accessories of war that have no place in our communities.”

“The Supreme Court has properly restrained executive branch agencies to their role of enforcing, and not making, the law,” said Randy Kozuch of the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action.


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