Supreme Court strikes down Trump-era ban on bump stocks on guns

The Supreme Court on Friday struck down a federal ban on bump stocks approved by former President Donald Trump, the latest opinion from the conservative court rolling back firearm regulations.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion for a 6-3 court. The court’s liberal wing, led by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, dissented.

Trump had pushed for the ban in response to a 2017 mass shooting that killed 58 people at an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas. Bump stocks allow a shooter to convert a semi-automatic rifle into a weapon that can fire at a rate of hundreds of rounds a minute.

“A bump stock does not convert a semiautomatic rifle into a machinegun any more than a shooter with a lightning-fast trigger finger does,” Thomas wrote in his opinion. “Even with a bump stock, a semiautomatic rifle will fire only one shot for every ‘function of the trigger.’”

The ban was challenged by a Texas gun store owner, Michael Cargill, who purchased two of the devices in 2018, turned them over to the government after the prohibition was implemented and then promptly sued to get them back. The federal rule made possession of a bump stock a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Though the case didn’t rely on the Second Amendment, it did put the debate about guns back on the court’s docket in one of the most closely watched controversies this year. In that sense, the decision was the latest from the high court to side with gun rights groups.

President Joe Biden said in a statement later Friday that the ruling “strikes down an important gun safety regulation. Americans should not have to live in fear of this mass devastation.”

Sotomayor reads dissent from the bench

Sotomayor wrote in a scathing dissent joined by the court’s other two liberal justices that the majority’s ruling “will have deadly consequences.”

The decision, she wrote, “hamstrings the Government’s efforts to keep machineguns from gunmen like the Las Vegas shooter.”

In a move that underscored Sotomayor’s discontent with the court’s ruling, the justice took the rare step of reading her dissent from the bench on Friday.

“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 wrote in her dissent. “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.”

Gun control groups decry ‘shameful decision’

A number of gun control advocacy groups argued Friday that the court’s ruling will have a dangerous impact in a country constantly reeling from gun violence.

“We’ve seen bump stocks cause immense destruction and violence,” said Esther Sanchez-Gomez, an attorney with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Congress must act to undo the damage and make clear that bump stocks, and all automatic conversion devices, are illegal under federal law.”

The pro-gun safety group Brady United similarly denounced the ruling, saying in a statement on X: “Bump stocks essentially turn semi-automatic weapons into machine guns. Weapons of war should have no place in our communities.”

And Everytown for Gun Safety argued that the high court “has put countless lives in danger.” The group said in a statement that lawmakers in Washington “can and should right this deadly wrong.”

Groups that opposed the ban argued that the federal government never had the power to ban the devices without Congress’s approval.

Randy Kozuch, the head of the National Rifle Association’s legislative arm, said on Friday that the court “has properly restrained executive branch agencies to their role of enforcing, and not making, the law.”

Mark Chenoweth, president of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, the group that represented Cargill, also applauded the decision.

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

From Capone to the Supreme Court

The bump stock challenge was tied indirectly to a gun control law Congress enacted in the 1930s that was intended to target gangsters like Al Capone and John Dillinger. Responding to grisly crimes in which machine guns were used to rob banks or ambush police, lawmakers required owners to register those weapons.

The law was amended several times and, by 1986, it prohibited Americans from transferring or possessing a machine gun altogether in most circumstances. Importantly, the amended law defined “machine gun” as a weapon that fires more than one round with “a single function of the trigger.” What, precisely, that phrase meant was the focus of the appeal.

Both the Trump and Biden administrations, as well as gun control groups, said the way bump stocks work mean they qualify as machine guns. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reclassified the devices as machine guns in 2018 and, based on the earlier law, barred people from buying or owning them.

Trump described bump stocks at the time as converting “legal weapons into illegal machines.”

ATF estimated that as many as 520,000 bump stocks were sold between 2010 and 2018. The device replaces a semiautomatic rifle’s regular stock, the part of a gun that rests against the shoulder. It lets shooters use the recoil of the weapon to mimic automatic firing if they hold their trigger finger in place.

Opponents say the ATF overstepped its authority with the reclassification. They noted that the agency under both Democratic and Republican administrations had long said the devices were not covered by the law.

A US District Court in Texas and a panel of three judges on the conservative 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Justice Department. But the full 5th Circuit reconsidered the case and issued a fractured opinion last year siding with Cargill.

The court appeared split during oral arguments in late February. Several of the court’s conservatives were concerned, in particular, with the idea that Americans who purchased bump stocks when they were not classified as machine guns could suddenly be prosecuted for a crime they were not aware of.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh worried that the criminalization of the device would “ensnare” Americans.

“Even if you’re not aware of the legal prohibition, you can be convicted,” Kavanaugh told the attorney representing the Biden administration. “That’s going to ensnare a lot of people who are not aware of the legal prohibition.”

Another central theme of the arguments was the question of whether Congress — rather than the ATF — should have approved the ban. It’s an issue that’s emerged as a central theme at the Supreme Court in recent years, with groups challenging financial and environmental regulations in separate cases.

The court, meanwhile, has repeatedly sided with some of the same gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, that opposed the bump stock ban. Most recently, the court’s conservative majority invalidated a New York state law that required state residents to have a special need to carry a weapon outside of their homes.

Thomas includes graphics of how bump stocks work

In an opinion that reflected the technical nature of the case and the oral arguments in February, Thomas’ opinion digs deeply into the mechanics of semi-automatic rifles – including with a series of graphics demonstrating what happens when triggers are depressed.

“Firing multiple shots using a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock requires more than a single function of the trigger,” Thomas wrote, underscoring the idea that the devices are not the same thing as an automatic weapon where a shooter simply holds down a trigger.

“Too much forward pressure and the rifle will not slide back far enough to release and reset the trigger, preventing the rifle from firing another shot. Too little pressure and the trigger will not bump the shooter’s trigger finger with sufficient force to fire another shot,” Thomas wrote. “Without this ongoing manual input, a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock will not fire multiple shots. Thus, firing multiple shots requires engaging the trigger one time — and then some.”

GOP lawmakers celebrate court’s ruling

The overwhelming majority of House Republicans celebrated the court’s decision on Friday, arguing that they long believed it was unconstitutional.

Despite the fact the action was taken under the Trump administration, many Republicans argued it was the wrong move at the time.

“It vindicates the rights of gun owners,” Rep. Matt Gaetz told CNN. “I think there was a lot of misinformation about bump stocks. I think responsible gun ownership enhances safety.”

Texas Rep. Chip Roy also praised the ruling, saying the ban “was a bad rule, just like the pistol brace is a Biden-era rule, which is a bad rule.”

“There are definitional issues on the trigger,” Roy added. “I don’t think they had a really strong case in the first place. Obviously, it’s a strong statement and in still continuing to protect, support Second Amendment rights — so I’m glad the court did it.”

This story has been updated with additional details.

CNN’s Kit Maher and Owen Dahlkamp contributed to this report.

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