Supreme Court strikes down ban on ‘bump stocks’ — a gun accessory used in 2017 Las Vegas massacre

The devices allow rifles to fire more rounds of ammunition with the need for manual reloading, like machine guns

Ariana Baio
Friday 14 June 2024 15:49 BST
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A bump fire stock that attaches to a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing rate is seen at Good Guys Gun Shop on October 4, 2017
A bump fire stock that attaches to a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing rate is seen at Good Guys Gun Shop on October 4, 2017 (REUTERS)

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The Supreme Court said a ban on bump stocks — devices that can be added to semi-automatic firearms to make them fire faster — was unconstitutional, striking down a Trump-era law that was put into place after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

In a 6-3 ruling issued on Friday, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) incorrectly ruled that a bump stock turns a semiautomatic rifle into a machine gun.

“A semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not a “machinegun”... 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,’” Thomas wrote.

A bump fire stock, (R), that attaches to a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing rate is seen at Good Guys Gun Shop in Orem, Utah, U.S., October 4, 2017
A bump fire stock, (R), that attaches to a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing rate is seen at Good Guys Gun Shop in Orem, Utah, U.S., October 4, 2017 (REUTERS)

It is a major ruling for gun access in the United States at a time when mass shootings are a major concern for millions of Americans.

The case, Garland v Cargill, arose after Michael Cargill, a gun owner and licensed dealer in Texas, challenged a law that required him to surrender his bump stocks to the ATF.

The Trump-era ban was imposed after the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, when a gunman used a bump stock to fire more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition into a music festival crowd, killing 58 people in just 11 minutes.

The agency said the device could turn legally obtained semi-automatic firearms into illegal machine guns and issued a ban, requiring the ATF to prohibit the sale and possession of the devices.

Cargill sued the agency, claiming the ATF overstepped its authority when interpreting a statute on machine guns to include bump stocks.

Under a 1986 law, machine guns are defined as “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.”

That definition also includes a provision for “any part designed and intended, for use in converting a weapon into a machinegun” that can be combined and assembled by a person.

A bump stock meanwhile is defined as a device that can convert a semi-automatic firearm so that it fires continuously with a single pull of the trigger. They are installed on the stock of a firearm to take control of the gun’s recoil allowing it to “bump” back and forth via the trigger.

The phrase “single pull of the trigger”  was a point of contention in the case. But more broadly, justices weighed the potential impact of upholding or overturning the man during oral arguments in February.

Justice Kavanaugh expressed concern that regulating bump stocks would subject owners who obtained them before the law was enacted to criminal liability.

Meanwhile, Justice Kagan argued that including bump stocks in the statute was “common sense” given the lethal consequences.

“It functions in precisely the same way,” Justice Kagan said. “And a torrent of bullets comes out and this is in the heartland of what they were concerned about, which is anything that takes just a little human action to produce more than one shot.”

Portraits of vctims of the Las Vegas mass shooting at the Clark County Government Center in 2018
Portraits of vctims of the Las Vegas mass shooting at the Clark County Government Center in 2018 (Getty Images)

Justice Thomas wrote, in the majority opinion, that bump stocks do not convert semiautomatic rifles into machineguns “any more than a shooter with a lightning-fast trigger finger does.”

“A bump stock merely reduces the amount of time that elapses between separate “functions” of the trigger,” he wrote. The conservative majority agreed that bump stocks do not allow for a “single pull of the trigger” to fire multiple rounds – just that they fire faster.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented from the majority opinion, warning that the decision “hamstrings the Government’s efforts to keep machineguns from gunmen like the Las Vegas shooter.”

The three liberal justices criticized the conservative wing of the court for ignoring Congress’s interpretation of the word “machinegun” for an extremely narrow definition.

“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. A bump-stock-equipped semiautomatic rifle fires “automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger. Because I, like Congress, call that a machinegun, I respectfully dissent,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.

The case, Garland v Cargill is one of two gun-related cases the Supreme Court took up this term.

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