The Supreme Court agreed to take up a challenge to the federal ban on bump stocks, devices that essentially allow shooters to fire semiautomatic rifles more rapidly, discharging potentially hundreds of bullets per minute.
Federal appeals courts have split on the legality of the ban.
The decision to hear the case comes as the country is still reeling from the latest mass shooting and just days before the justices are poised to revisit a landmark Second Amendment opinion from 2022 that expanded gun rights nationwide.
Under then-President Donald Trump, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives banned bump stock devices in 2019 and ordered people who possessed the devices to destroy them or turn them into an ATF office. Trump had ordered a review of the devices after a mass shooting in 2017 in Las Vegas, in which a shooter armed with semiautomatic weapons and bump stock devices opened fire from his hotel suite onto outdoor concertgoers, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds of others.
The challenge goes to whether ATF exceeded its authority in 2018 by reclassifying bump stocks as “machine guns” under the National Firearms Act. Under federal law a “machine gun” is interpreted 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.”
Challengers have framed their appeal as a separation of powers dispute, arguing that the agency lacked the authority to issue such a rule banning the devices, that bump stocks don’t fall under the legal definition of “machine gun” and at the very least the law is ambiguous.
The Biden administration petitioned the Supreme Court asking the justices to take up an appeal noting that some appeals courts had rejected challenges to the rule.
Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar argued that bump stocks fall into the definition of a machine gun because “when the shooter maintains constant forward pressure on the weapon’s barrel-shroud or fore-grip, the weapon slides back along the bump stock, causing the trigger to ‘bump’ the shooter’s stationary finger and fire another bullet.”
The dispute arose when Michael Cargill purchased bump stocks in April 2018. After the ATF adopted its final rule, Cargill surrendered the devices, but challenged the rule by filing suit in the Western District of Texas. A conservative federal appeals court, the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals, concluded that the ATF had acted unlawfully because the statutory definition of “machine gun” does not encompass bump stocks.
Lawyers for Cargill say he will never get his bump stocks back but that by the government’s own estimate Americans had purchased 52,000 bumps stocks during a nine-year period when the ATF had excluded them from the statutory definition of “machine gun.”
“ATF admits that the expected loss of property will exceed $100 million,” a lawyer for Cargill argued in court papers.
Although the district court and a panel of judges on the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of the government, a larger panel of judges on the appeals court issued a fractured opinion and reversed it on January 6th of 2023.
“A plain reading of the statutory language, paired with close consideration of the mechanics of a semi-automatic firearm, reveals that a bump stock is excluded from the technical definition of machine gun set forth in the Gun Control Act and National Firearms Act,” several of the judges said. In the end, a majority of the court held that because the statute was ambiguous the court would rule in favor of Cargill.
This story is breaking and will be updated.
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