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Supreme Court Rules Bump Stock Ban Unlawful

“Nothing changes when a semiautomatic rifle is equipped with a bump stock.”


The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Friday to overturn a Trump-era policy banning bump stocks for semi-automatic firearms, arguing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive (ATF) exceeded its authority.

The Trump administration’s ATF created the regulation 14 months after the deadliest U.S. mass shooting took place in 2017 at a country music festival in Las Vegas. The regulation reversed previous ATF policy that stated a semi-automatic firearm with a bump stock does not constitute a fully automatic firearm or machine gun. The Trump administration, alongside others, argued bump stocks “illegally convert semi-automatic rifles … into fully automatic machine guns,” The Federalist’s founder Sean Davis explained.

Upon implementation of the rule, anyone who owned bump stocks had 90 days to either destroy them or surrender them to the government in what represented “the most sweeping federal gun control effort since the so-called assault weapons ban, which was passed in 1994 and expired in 2003,” Davis wrote.

The high court struck down the rule, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing for the majority.

Michael Cargill, who was forced to surrender two bump stocks after the ban went into effect, argued the ATF lacked the statutory authority under the Administrative Procedure Act to create the rule because under federal law, bump stocks are not “machineguns.” The Supreme Court affirmed that the ATF lacked the authority to create the rule since. A Court of Appeals similarly affirmed this decision prior to the case heading to the Supreme Court.

The Court began by acknowledging a bump stock simply uses the recoil energy to increase the rate of fire but “does not alter the basic mechanics of bump firing, and the trigger still must be released and reengaged to fire each additional shot,” therefore not violating the 1934 National Firearms Act definition of a “machinegun.”

“This case asks whether a bump stock — an accessory for a semi-automatic rifle that allows the shooter to rapidly reengage the trigger (and therefore achieve a high rate of fire) — converts the rifle into a ‘machinegun.’ We hold that it does not and therefore affirm,” the Court ruled.

The current federal definition for a “machinegun” states, in part:

“Any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot or can be readily restored to shoot automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.”

The Supreme Court wrote that adding a bump stock does not convert a semi-automatic firearm to a “machinegun” under current law because “it cannot fire more than one shot ‘by a single function of the trigger’ and even if it could, it would not do so ‘automatically.'”

“Nothing changes when a semiautomatic rifle is equipped with a bump stock,” the Court held. “Between every shot, the shooter must release pressure from the trigger and allow it to reset before reengaging the trigger for another shot. A bump stock merely reduces the amount of time that elapses between separate ‘functions’ of the trigger.”

The court also slapped down the ATF’s argument that a bump stock allows an individual to fire multiple shots with one pull of the trigger.

“This argument rests on the mistaken premise that there is a difference between the shooter flexing his finger to pull the trigger and pushing the firearm forward to bump the trigger against his stationary trigger,” the ruling states, “Moreover, ATF’s position is logically inconsistent because its reasoning would also mean that a semiautomatic rifle without a bump stock is capable of firing more than one shot by a ‘single function of the trigger.’ Yet, ATF agrees that is not the case. ATF’s argument is thus at odds with itself.”

The Court cited a 2017 rule from the ATF in which it explained a bump stock does not convert a semi-automatic firearm into a machine gun because “forward pressure must be applied with the support hand to the forward handguard … [and] to fire each shot, each succeeding shot fir[es] with a single trigger function.”

Thomas also condemned the minority’s dissent for trying to “rewrite” text under the auspices of what they speculate Congress may have done at the time the law was written.

“Congress could have linked the definition of ‘machinegun’ to a weapon’s rate of fire, as the dissent would prefer. But, it instead enacted a statute that turns on whether a weapon can fire more than one shot ‘automatically . . . by a single function of the trigger.’ And, ‘it is never our job to rewrite . . . statutory text under the banner of speculation about what Congress might have done.'”

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion but left the door open for Congress to “act” and ban bump stocks. The Las Vegas shooting, Alito wrote, showed that “a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock can have the same lethal effect as a machinegun, and it thus strengthened the case for amending [federal law]. But an event that highlights the need to amend a law does not itself change the law’s meaning.”

Notably, the ruling does not determine whether a Congressional ban on bump stocks would violate the Second Amendment — just whether or not the ATF’s process for banning the accessory was lawful.

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