The Supreme Court is hearing the case about the ban on bump stocks for firearms

By | February 28, 2024

Washington — The Supreme Court will meet on Wednesday to hear an objection to a Trump-era bump stock ban for firearms planted in response to the 2017 mass shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas.

At issue in this case is whether a bump stock is a “machine gun” under federal law. The dispute is the second firearm dispute the Supreme Court will hear this term, but it does not involve the Second Amendment. Instead, the lawsuit raises a question about statutory interpretation and whether the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had the authority to ban bump stocks.

Oral arguments in the case known as Garland v. Cargill begin at 10 a.m. ET. Audio of the arguments will be streamed live in the player above.

Machine guns have been largely banned since 1986 and are defined in federal law as “any weapon that fires, is designed to fire, or can be easily restored to fire more than one shot automatically, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.” The definition also includes “any part designed and intended, or combination of parts designed and intended, solely and exclusively for use in converting a weapon into a machine gun.”

The legal battle over bump stocks

A bump stock is an attachment that replaces the standard stock of a semi-automatic rifle, the rear portion of the gun that rests on the shooter’s shoulder. It allows the rest of the gun to move back and forth while the stock remains in place, and includes a finger rest that keeps the trigger finger still. When the rifle is fired and the shooter applies forward pressure to the barrel, the rifle recoils in the stock and bounces forward again, “bumping” the trigger against the finger and firing another round. This device allows the shooter to shoot much faster than is possible with a standard stock.

In this October 4, 2017, file photo, a bump stock is attached to a semi-automatic rifle at the Gun Vault store and shooting range in South Jordan, Utah.  /Credit: Rick Bowmer /APIn this October 4, 2017, file photo, a bump stock is attached to a semi-automatic rifle at the Gun Vault store and shooting range in South Jordan, Utah.  /Credit: Rick Bowmer /AP

In this October 4, 2017, file photo, a bump stock is attached to a semi-automatic rifle at the Gun Vault store and shooting range in South Jordan, Utah. /Credit: Rick Bowmer /AP

After the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in 2017, then-President Donald Trump directed the Justice Department to propose a new rule banning all devices “that turn legal weapons into machine guns.”

Had ATF determined several times between 2008 and 2017, those bump stocks did not qualify as machine guns and are not covered by federal law. But after the massacre, things changed course, with the shooter using semi-automatic weapons equipped with bump stocks. The devices allowed him to fire as many as 1,000 rounds of ammunition in 11 minutes, killing 58 people — two others later died — and wounding about 500 others, according to the FBI.

In his new line released in December 2018, ATF has determined that a rifle equipped with a bump stock qualifies as a machine gun, in part because when a shooter pulls the trigger, it initiates a firing sequence that produces more than one shot. The sequence is “automatic,” the agency found, “because the device utilizes the firearm’s recoil energy as part of a continuous back-and-forth cycle that allows the shooter to fire continuously after a single pull of the trigger.”

The final rule of the Trump administration went into effect in March 2019, requiring those who already had buffer stocks to destroy the devices or turn them into ATF. Violators who continued to possess bump stocks could face criminal penalties.

While the regulatory process was underway, Michael Cargill, the man at the center of the case, purchased two bump stocks in April 2018. He turned them over to ATF after the ban passed, then challenged the regulations in federal district court in Texas.

The court sided with ATF, ruling that the agency correctly classified guns equipped with bump stocks as machine guns. A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision, determining that “bumpstocks qualify as machine guns under the best interpretation of the statute.”

But the full 5th Circuit panel struck down the regulations. In a 13-3 decision in January 2023, the appeals court ruled that Congress must take action to ban bump stocks. In part of the main opinion, written by Judge Jennifer Elrod, an eight-judge majority said bump stocks clearly do not fall within the legal definition of a machine gun. Twelve judges sided with Cargill, concluding that the definition of machine gun was ambiguous enough to invoke a legal principle known as the rule of leniency, which requires courts to interpret ambiguous criminal laws in a way that is most favorable to the suspect.

Other federal appeals courts have also weighed in on the legality of bump stock regulations. Applying the rule of leniency, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit sided with bump stock owner Scott Hardin, writing that “because the relevant statutory scheme does not clearly and unequivocally prohibit bump stocks, we are required to interpret the statute in Hardin’s favor.”

But a unanimous three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit left the rule in place, ruling that a bump stock is a machine gun under federal firearms law because “on the best interpretation of the statute” the device is “a self-regulating mechanism that allows a shooter to fire more than one shot with a single pull of the trigger.”

In April 2023, the Biden administration appealed the 5th Circuit’s ruling to the Supreme Court, arguing that a semi-automatic rifle equipped with a bump stock meets the definition of a machine gun under federal law.

The Department of Justice argued that ATF’s interpretation of the definition of machine gun is the correct and best one.

“Rifles equipped with bump stocks, like conventional machine guns, are dangerous and unusual weapons,” Attorney General Elizabeth Prelogar, who represents the government before the Supreme Court, wrote in a filing.

Prelogar also urged the court to reject an interpretation of the law that would allow gun manufacturers to circumvent the ban on machine guns.

“The Fifth Circuit’s opposing construction would transform Congress’s longstanding restrictions on machine guns into a ‘Maginot Line, easily circumvented by the simplest maneuver,'” she wrote. “This unlikely consequence further confirms what the natural reading of the statutory text instructs: a bump-stock device is a machine gun.”

But Cargill’s lawyers argued that bump stocks fall outside the definition of a machine gun for two reasons: first, because the trigger on a semi-automatic rifle resets and must be reactivated by the shooter between each shot fired from a weapon that is equipped with a bump stock. the device does not cause the gun to fire more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger”; and second, bump stocks prevent a rifle from firing automatically because the shooter must continually perform manual actions after activating the trigger.

If the Supreme Court finds that the statute’s language is ambiguous, they urged the Supreme Court to side with Cargill on the leniency rule. Cargill’s lawyers also noted that Congress itself could have taken action to ban bump stocks, but it did not.

“What Congress has passed is a legal definition of ‘machine gun’ that determines whether a weapon can ‘automatically’ fire more than one shot… by a single function of the trigger,” they said. “Whether that definition should be updated to include weapons that achieve machine gun results ‘through various technological means’ is a decision for Congress, not agencies or courts.”

A Supreme Court ruling is expected at the end of June.

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