SCOTUS Rules On Bump Stock Rule

June 14, 2024

In a significant ruling on Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that a bump stock does not transform a firearm into an automatic weapon, effectively striking down a federal rule that had banned bump stocks. The decision came in a 6-3 vote, with Justice Clarence Thomas authoring the majority opinion.

“Congress has long restricted access to ‘machinegun[s],’ a category of firearms defined by the ability to ‘shoot, automatically more than one shot… by a single function of the trigger,'” Justice Thomas explained. He further clarified that semiautomatic firearms, which require shooters to reengage the trigger for each shot, do not fall under the definition of machine guns. The court was asked to decide if a bump stock, an accessory for semiautomatic rifles that allows rapid trigger re-engagement, converts the rifle into a machine gun. The court concluded that it does not.

The case, Garland v. Cargill, questioned whether bump stocks should be classified as machineguns under federal law due to their ability to facilitate rapid firing. The high court’s majority concluded that a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock does not meet the statutory definition of a machinegun because it does not fire more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger,” and even if it did, it would not do so automatically.

Justice Thomas criticized the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for exceeding its authority by classifying bump stocks as machine guns. The ATF had issued this classification in response to the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, which left 60 people dead and hundreds wounded, creating political pressure to outlaw bump stocks. Following this tragedy, the Trump administration initiated a ban on the devices, a move later defended by President Biden’s Justice Department.

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, argued that the majority’s decision disregards Congress’s definition of a machinegun and misinterprets the statutory text. “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, equating bump-stock-equipped semiautomatic rifles to machineguns due to their rapid-fire capability.

Michael Cargill, the owner of Central Texas Gun Works, filed the lawsuit after being forced to surrender his bump stocks under the ATF’s rule. Cargill argued that the agency had overstepped its authority by imposing the ban without congressional action. Celebrating the ruling, Cargill stated, “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.”

Mark Chenoweth, president of the New Civil Liberties Alliance and Cargill’s attorney, praised the decision, asserting that the ATF does not have the authority to rewrite criminal laws. He criticized the rule for unlawfully confiscating over 500,000 lawfully purchased bump stocks from American citizens, calling for accountability from those responsible.

In response, President Biden expressed his disappointment, stating that the ruling “strikes down an important gun safety regulation.” He urged Congress to ban bump stocks and assault weapons to prevent mass devastation like the 2017 Las Vegas massacre.

Bump stocks, which came into circulation in the early 2000s, are devices that allow semiautomatic weapons to fire more rapidly. By harnessing the recoil energy, bump stocks enable the trigger to “bump” against the shooter’s stationary finger, facilitating a higher rate of fire. The ATF estimated that more than half a million bump stocks were in circulation when the federal ban took effect five years ago.



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