US Supreme Court rejects federal ban on gun ‘bump stocks’

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By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -The U.S. 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 U.S. 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 policy was defended in court by Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration.

“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 ‘machinegun.’ We hold that it does not and therefore affirm” the lower court’s ruling, Thomas wrote.

Federal officials have said the rule was needed to protect public safety in the United States, a nation facing persistent firearms violence.

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.

Thomas wrote: “We conclude that semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not a ‘machinegun’ because it does not fire more than one shot ‘by a single function of the trigger.’”

In a dissent, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “Today, the court puts bump stocks back in civilian hands. To do so, it casts aside Congress’s definition of ‘machinegun’ and seizes upon one that is inconsistent with the ordinary meaning of the statutory text and unsupported by context or purpose.”

“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,” Sotomayor said.

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

The bump stocks case centered on how the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a U.S. Justice Department agency, interpreted 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.”

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 took action to prohibit the devices. In a reversal of the agency’s previous stance, the ATF decided that bump stocks were covered by the National Firearms Act.

The Supreme Court, with its 6-3 conservative minority, 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, 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 challenge was not centered on the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

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 machinegun, and it thus strengthened the case for amending (existing law). But an event that highlights the need to amend a law does not itself change the law’s meaning,” Alito said.

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

John Feinblatt, president of the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, criticized the ruling and called on Congress to pass legislation banning 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.

Cargill sued to challenge the bump stocks rule, which required him to surrender his two bump stocks.

“Those weapons do exactly what Congress meant to prohibit when it enacted the prohibition on machine guns,” Justice Department lawyer Brian Fletcher told the Supreme Court during arguments in the case in February in which the justices focused on technical aspects of bump stocks.

Fletcher told the justices that “a single motion both initiates and maintains a multi-shot sequence.”

In January 2023, the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Cargill in a divided opinion.

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, however, it was a Republican administration that implemented the regulation.

The Supreme Court had turned away some previous challenges to the bump stocks 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.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

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