Published: 16:30, June 15, 2024
US Supreme Court rejects federal ban on gun 'bump stocks'
By Reuters
The US Supreme Court is seen, April 25, 2024, in Washington. (PHOTO / AP)

WASHINGTON - The US Supreme Court on Friday declared unlawful a federal ban on "bump stock" devices that enable semiautomatic weapons to fire rapidly like machine guns, rejecting yet another firearms restriction - this time one enacted under Republican former President Donald Trump.

The justices, in a 6-3 ruling authored by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, upheld a lower court's decision siding with Michael Cargill, a gun shop owner and gun rights advocate from Austin, Texas, who challenged the ban by claiming that a US agency improperly interpreted a federal law banning machine guns as extending to bump stocks. The conservative justices were in the majority, with the liberal justices dissenting.

The rule was imposed in 2019 by Trump's administration after the devices were used during a 2017 mass shooting that killed 58 people at a Las Vegas country music festival.

The Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, has taken an expansive view of gun rights, striking down gun restrictions in major cases in 2008, 2010 and in 2022

Democratic President Joe Biden, whose administration defended the rule in court, said the decision "strikes down an important gun safety regulation."

"Americans should not have to live in fear of this mass devastation," Biden added, saying he has "used every tool in my administration to stamp out gun violence."

"I call on Congress to ban bump stocks, pass an assault weapon ban and take additional action to save lives - send me a bill and I will sign it immediately," Biden said.

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Trump is challenging Biden in the Nov 5 US election. Trump campaign spokesperson Karoline Leavitt said after the ruling, "The court has spoken and their decision should be respected," and called him a "fierce defender" of gun rights.

The case centered on how the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a US Justice Department agency, interpreted a federal law called the National Firearms Act, which defined machine guns as weapons that can "automatically" fire more than one shot "by a single function of the trigger."

"We hold that a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not a 'machine gun' because it cannot fire more than one shot 'by a single function of the trigger,'" Thomas wrote. "And, 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 machine guns."

Federal law prohibits the sale or possession of machine guns, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Bump stocks use a semiautomatic's recoil to allow it to slide back and forth while "bumping" the shooter's trigger finger, resulting in rapid fire. Federal officials had said the rule was needed to protect public safety in a nation facing persistent firearms violence.

'Walks like a duck'

In a dissent, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the ruling would have "deadly consequences," saying the court's majority cast aside the will of Congress to embrace an "artificially narrow definition" of a machine gun, allowing gun users and manufacturers to circumvent the law.

Sotomayor noted that the court's majority accomplished this by focusing heavily on the internal mechanisms of the firearm and using "six diagrams and an animation" to reach its conclusion when bump stock-equipped firearms are clearly machine guns, 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," Sotomayor added.

After a gunman used weapons outfitted with bump stocks in the Las Vegas shooting spree that killed 58 people and wounded hundreds more, Trump's administration prohibited the devices. In a reversal of the agency's previous stance, the ATF decided that bump stocks were covered by the National Firearms Act.

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Conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote in a concurring opinion on Friday: "The horrible shooting spree in Las Vegas in 2017 did not change the statutory text or its meaning. That event demonstrated that a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock can have the same lethal effect as a machine gun, and it thus strengthened the case for amending (existing law)," Alito said.

"Now that the situation is clear, Congress can act," Alito added.

Expansive view of gun rights

The Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, has taken an expansive view of gun rights, striking down gun restrictions in major cases in 2008, 2010 and in 2022. In that 2022 decision, it struck down New York state's limits on carrying concealed handguns outside the home and set a tough new standard for determining the legality of gun regulations. Unlike those three cases, this one was not centered on the US Constitution's Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

Mark Chenoweth, president of the conservative legal group New Civil Liberties Alliance that represented Cargill, hailed the ruling.

"The statute Congress passed did not ban bump stocks, and ATF does not have the power to do so on its own," Chenoweth said.

John Feinblatt, president of the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, urged Congress to outlaw bump stocks.

"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," Feinblatt said.

The New Orleans-based 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals last year sided with Cargill.

The United States is a country deeply divided over how to address gun violence that Biden has called a "national embarrassment." Biden and many Democrats favor tougher gun restrictions, while Republicans often oppose them. In this case, it was a Republican administration that implemented the rule.

The justices also are expected to rule by the end of June in another gun rights case. They heard arguments in November over the legality of a federal law that makes it a crime for people under domestic violence restraining orders to have guns.