WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court jumped into a new gun rights battle Friday by agreeing to weigh whether a Trump-era ban on so-called bump stocks that allow semi-automatic rifles to fire faster is lawful.
The justices were asked by both the Biden administration and gun rights activists to address the issue, with lower courts reaching different conclusions.
The case involves Texas-based gun owner and licensed dealer Michael Cargill, who owned two bump stocks before the ban went into effect and later turned them over to the government. He sued, claiming that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lacked the legal authority to implement the ban.
The conservative-majority Supreme Court issued a major ruling in June 2022 that expanded gun rights, although the legal issues arising from the bumper weapon ban vary.
Bump stocks are accessories for semi-automatic rifles, such as the popular AR-15-style weapons. They harness the recoil energy of a trigger to allow the user to fire up to hundreds of rounds per minute.
President Donald Trump’s administration imposed the ban after the mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017, when Stephen Paddock opened fire with batons at a country music festival, initially killing 58 people. Paddock died by suicide as he was about to be arrested.
The ban was a rare example of a Republican administration taking action on gun control.
“Weapons equipped with shock stocks can cause massive devastation. These are devices that shoot like machine guns and kill like machine guns. Therefore, it stands to reason that they should be regulated like machine guns,” said Nick Suplina, senior vice president of legal and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group.
The policy went into effect in 2019 after the Supreme Court declined to block it. Since then, the already conservative court has moved further to the right, with conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump appointee, replacing liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in 2020.
The Court, with its new 6-3 conservative majority, ruled for the first time in the June 2022 gun rights decision that the Second Amendment right to bear arms protects the individual right to carry a handgun outside the home. The ruling was the most significant expansion of gun rights since the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that there is an individual right to carry guns for self-defense at home.
Next week, in a follow-up case, justices will consider the scope of their 2022 ruling on whether people accused of domestic violence have a right to own firearms.
Challenging bump stocks does not affect the scope of the right to bear arms. The challengers argue that the government does not have the authority to ban bumpstocks under the National Firearms Act, a law passed in 1934 to regulate machine guns.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 expanded the definition of “machine gun” to include accessories “for use in converting a weapon” into a machine gun, and the ATF concluded that bump stocks met that definition.
Those challenging the ban said the legal definition of machine gun has been distorted beyond recognition and argued that courts should not rely on the federal agency’s interpretation.
Richard Samp, an attorney with the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a legal group that represents Cargill, said: “ATF has recognized for many years that semi-automatic weapons equipped with shock stocks are not ‘machine guns.'” The sudden reversal can only be explained by the decision to prioritize political expediency over the rule of law.”
The Supreme Court in October 2022 dismissed two previous lawsuits filed by gun rights advocates challenging the bump stock ban.
Now the legal landscape is different: Both the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Cincinnati, ruled that the ban was unlawful.
The Biden administration appealed both cases, while gun rights advocates urged the justices to hear their appeal of a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that upheld the ban.
The court also heard a second case related to gun rights on Friday. At issue was the National Rifle Association’s claim that a New York state official’s alleged role in pushing companies to end their ties with the gun rights group constituted unlawful coercion.