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June 16, 2024

Supreme Court Overturns Federal Ban on Bump Stocks

The Supreme Court has struck down a federal ban on bump stocks, a firearm accessory used to increase the rate of fire of semiautomatic weapons, in a landmark 6-3 decision. This ruling, delivered on Friday, nullifies the ban implemented following the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, where the perpetrator used bump stocks to kill 58 people at a concert.

Background of the Ban

The ban on bump stocks was put into place by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in December 2018. This decision was made in the wake of the October 2017 tragedy at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, where Stephen Paddock used firearms equipped with bump stocks to fire into a large crowd, resulting in 58 fatalities and hundreds of injuries. The ATF's ruling reclassified bump stocks as machine guns under federal law, effectively banning them for civilian use.

Supreme Court's Ruling

In the majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court found that the ATF overstepped its authority with this ban. The court ruled that bump stocks do not transform semiautomatic weapons into machine guns and therefore should not be classified as such under existing federal law. Justice Thomas stated, "This case asks whether a bump stock -- an accessory for a semiautomatic rifle that allows the shooter to rapidly reengage the trigger (and therefore achieve a high rate of fire) -- converts the rifle into a 'machine gun.' We hold that it does not and therefore affirm."

Majority Opinion

The court's decision emphasized that bump stocks, while they do allow for a higher rate of fire, do not meet the technical definition of a machine gun. A machine gun, as defined by federal law, is a weapon that fires multiple rounds with a single function of the trigger. Bump stocks, on the other hand, require the shooter to engage the trigger each time a round is fired, albeit very rapidly. This distinction, the court argued, is crucial in determining the legality of bump stocks under current legislation.

Justice Thomas underscored that legislative power resides with Congress, not with regulatory agencies like the ATF. He stated that any changes to the law regarding bump stocks should come from Congress rather than administrative rulings. This perspective was echoed by Mark Chenoweth, president of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, who represented the plaintiff challenging the ban. Chenoweth remarked, "This result is completely consistent with the Constitution's assignment of all legislative power to Congress. Bump-stock opponents should direct any views at Congress, not the court, which faithfully applied the statute in front of it."

Dissenting Opinion

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that the court's majority was "splitting hairs" in its interpretation of what constitutes a machine gun. She pointed out that both bump stocks and traditional machine guns allow a shooter to fire multiple rounds with minimal trigger engagement, challenging the majority's differentiation between the two.

Justice Sotomayor wrote, "When a shooter initiates the firing sequence on a bump stock-equipped semiautomatic rifle, he does so with 'a single function of the trigger' under the term's ordinary meaning. Just as the shooter of an M16 need only pull the trigger and maintain backward pressure (on the trigger), a shooter of a bump-stock-equipped AR-15 needs only pull the trigger and maintain forward pressure (on the gun). Both shooters pull the trigger only once to fire multiple shots."

Concurring Opinion

Justice Samuel Alito, while concurring with the majority, expressed his view that bump stocks function similarly to machine guns in practical terms. However, he maintained that it is up to Congress to clarify and amend the law to address any inconsistencies. He wrote, "There is a simple remedy for the disparate treatment of bump stocks and machine guns. 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."

Response from the Administration

President Joe Biden criticized the Supreme Court's decision, describing it as a setback for gun safety regulations. In a statement, he urged Congress to take immediate action, stating, "This Supreme Court decision strikes down an important gun safety regulation. We know thoughts and prayers are not enough. 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."

Implications of the Ruling

The Supreme Court's decision has significant implications for federal regulatory authority and gun control laws in the United States. It reaffirms the principle that regulatory agencies cannot extend their authority beyond the explicit mandates of Congress. This ruling also leaves the status of bump stocks in a legal grey area, with the potential for renewed debate and legislative action in Congress.

Gun rights advocates have hailed the ruling as a victory for Second Amendment protections, while gun control advocates view it as a dangerous setback in efforts to curb gun violence. The ruling may prompt lawmakers to introduce new legislation specifically targeting bump stocks and similar devices.

Moving Forward

As the debate over bump stocks continues, this Supreme Court decision underscores the complex interplay between legislative authority, regulatory actions, and judicial interpretation. It highlights the need for clear and precise laws that can effectively address evolving issues in firearm technology and public safety. Whether Congress will take up the challenge to redefine the legal status of bump stocks remains to be seen, but the Supreme Court's ruling has undoubtedly set the stage for further discussions and potential legislative reforms.

In the meantime, the decision reinforces the importance of adhering to the constitutional division of powers, ensuring that regulatory agencies operate within the bounds set by Congress, and emphasizing the need for clear, consistent, and constitutionally sound firearm regulations in the United States.