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Supreme Court strikes down ban on bump stocks

On Friday, the Supreme Court struck down the reclassification of bump stocks that was promulgated by the Trump administration back in 2018. This was not a Second Amendment case, but a statutory case, and, as such, the question was not whether bump stocks count as “arms,” but whether the National Firearms Act of 1934 grants the executive branch the power to regulate them in the same manner as it regulates machine guns.

As the Court makes clear, the answer to this is unquestionably no. In consequence, the regulation must fall.

The Supreme Court sided with Texas gun store owner Michael Cargill on Friday, delivering a 6 to 3 opinion that found a Trump administration rule banning rifle bump stocks was unlawful, as the statutory definition of a machine gun does not allow for an expanded interpretation that includes the devices.

Former President Donald Trump, who is presently seeking a second term in the White House, issued the ban in response to the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, where a gunman used a bump stock to murder 58 people and injured around 500 more at a country music concert. It remains the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The ban was achieved by reversing a prior finding by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) that the bump stocks were not prohibited under existing laws, and instead declared the stocks fell under the statutory definition of a “machine gun.”

Machine guns are heavily regulated under the National Firearms Act (NFA) and the Gun Control Act (GCA). In fact, the only machine guns eligible for civilian ownership were those legally possessed and owned before May 19, 1986. Machine guns made after this cut-off date are prohibited from civilian ownership.

Bump stocks are relatively recent inventions that allow a shooter to increase the rate of fire from a semi-automatic rifle. By declaring bump stocks machine guns, all of the devices became illegal to own or possess, and owners were given a window to destroy the stocks or turn them into the ATF.

Cargill surrendered two bump stocks to the ATF under protest before filing a lawsuit challenging the legality of the rule in federal court.

The majority opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas noted, “For many years, the (ATF) consistently took the position that semiautomatic rifles equipped with bump stocks were not machineguns,” and in examining the text of the statute and comparing it against the design and function of machine guns and bump stocks, found that the ATF’s rule was unlawful.

“Held: ATF exceeded its statutory authority by issuing a Rule that classifies a bump stock as a ‘machinegun,’ under §5845(b),” the ruling states, further explaining, “A semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not a ‘machinegun’ as defined by §5845(b) because: (1) it cannot fire more than one shot ‘by a single function of the trigger’ and (2) even if it could, it would not do so ‘automatically.’ ATF therefore exceeded its statutory authority by issuing a Rule that classifies bump stocks as machineguns.”

Thomas was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Justices Neil Gorsuch, Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, and Samuel Alito.

Alito added a one-page concurrence to the ruling, writing that the statutory text is clear and must be followed and noting that the horrible shooting in Las Vegas did not change the law. He then indicated Congress may have a green light for banning the devices if it so chooses.

“There is a simple remedy for the disparate treatment of bump stocks and machineguns. 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,” Alito wrote.

Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Kentanji Brown Jackson dissented in the case. “The majority’s artificially narrow definition hamstrings the Government’s efforts to keep machineguns from gunmen like the Las Vegas shooter. I respectfully dissent,” Sotomayor wrote in the dissent.

That pressure was real. But it was not law. The United States Constitution is extremely clear on how laws are made, and “a lot of people are upset about something” lies nowhere within its instructions. If one wishes, one can argue that Congress ought to have changed the law after the Nevada massacre. But it didn’t. And, because it didn’t, the executive branch had no more authority to issue its rule than it had had on the “more than 10 separate occasions over several administrations” on which it had concluded that such a change would be ultra vires.

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor contends that none of this matters. “When I see a bird that walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck,” she says, “I call that bird a duck.” Within the context of statutory interpretation, I’m afraid that I do not know what this means. The question at hand was not whether bump stocks make semi-automatic firearms look like automatic firearms; the question was whether bump stocks physically transform semi-automatic firearms into firearms that, per the relevant language within the law, are able to shoot repeatedly “by a single function of the trigger.” Obviously, they don’t. Perhaps Sotomayor believes that the language Congress passed is too precise. Perhaps, instead, she’d like 26 U.S.C. §5845(b) to discuss effect or implication or to lay out some vague sense of congressional purpose that could be broadly applied by the other branches. If so, that is her prerogative, but, until Congress acquiesces, her job is to uphold the law as it is written — and, in this case, it was the six colleagues whom she criticizes who did that.

“I was told over five years ago why are you going down this road, no one cares about bump stocks. Let’s go ahead and let them take the bump stocks,” Cargill said in a statement posted to X regarding the ruling.

“But instead, I stood and fought, and because of this the bump stock case is going to be the case that saves everything. Its going to stop the ATF from coming after your pistol brace, triggers, all different parts and pieces that they are trying to ban, he further explained. 

Cargill has previously explained his purpose in challenging the bump stock ban was to reign in executive rule-making powers that could be used to implement other gun control measures. 

Other similar executive rules on firearms have recently been dealt legal blows in federal courts, including the ban on pistol braces that Cargill mentioned. A federal district court in Texas vacated the rule in its entirety, finding that the ATF exceeded its authority in reclassifying the braces as short-barreled rifles.

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