(Bloomberg) -- The US Supreme Court agreed to decide the fate of the federal criminal ban on bump stocks, the attachments that let a semiautomatic rifle fire much like a machine gun.
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Adding a second gun clash to their 2023-24 agenda, the justices said they will resolve lower court disagreement over a prohibition the Trump administration put in place after the 2017 Las Vegas concert massacre. A man using bump stocks killed 60 people in that attack, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.
The justices are already considering the constitutionality of a federal law that bars firearms possession by people who are subject to a domestic violence restraining order. Arguments in that case are set for Nov. 7, and both disputes are likely to be decided by the middle of next year.
The new fight is about the reach of a federal statute rather than the Constitution. It centers on a 1986 law that bars most people from owning fully automatic machine guns, or parts designed to convert other weapons into machine guns.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives classified bump stocks as machine guns in 2018, putting them under the ambit of the 1986 law. ATF estimated at the time that more than 500,000 of the devices had been manufactured over the previous eight years. The Supreme Court let the ban take effect in 2019.
The question is whether the bump stocks meet the 1986 law’s definition of machine guns as weapons that can “automatically” discharge more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger.”
Bump stocks replace the standard stock on a rifle — the part that rests against the shooter’s shoulder — with a plastic casing that lets the weapon slide forward and backward. The device harnesses the recoil energy when a shot is fired, causing the gun to slide backward and separate from the trigger finger. The separation lets the firing mechanism reset.
By applying constant forward pressure with the non-trigger hand, the shooter can then force the rifle forward so that it “bumps” the trigger finger, even without moving the finger.
“This creates a continuous fire-recoil-bump-fire sequence that converts a semiautomatic rifle into a weapon capable of firing hundreds of rounds per minute,” argued Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, the top Supreme Court lawyer for the Biden administration, which is defending the Trump-era decision.
Opponents of the ban say bump stocks don’t meet the requirement that the weapon “automatically” discharge.
The ATF rule overlooks “the considerable human input required to fire more than one shot from a bump-stock-equipped semi-automatic rifle,” argued Michael Cargill, a Texas man who sued to challenge the ban after surrendering two bump stocks he had recently purchased, as required under the law.
Two federal appeals courts, including the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Cargill’s case, have said bump stocks don’t qualify as machine guns, while two other appeals courts have agreed with the government. The Supreme Court typically takes up appeals when lower courts are in disagreement on an issue.
The case is Garland v. Cargill, 22-976.
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