Supreme Court Sides with Gun Owners: Trump-Era Ban Axed

Guy Midkiff /
Guy Midkiff /

Last Friday, the Supreme Court overturned a ban on bump stocks. Bump stocks are attachments that allow semiautomatic rifles to fire at speeds comparable to machine guns. This landmark decision, reached by a 6-3 vote along ideological lines, effectively eliminates one of the few firearm regulations implemented in response to a mass shooting.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, argued that the ATF had overstepped its authority by classifying bump stocks as machine guns. Justice Thomas stated that a semiautomatic rifle fitted with a bump stock does not qualify as a ‘machine gun’ because it cannot discharge more than one shot with a single pull of the trigger. His opinion included detailed diagrams and technical descriptions of the firing mechanism to clarify how a bump stock functions.

The Trump administration enacted the bump stock ban following the 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting, one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern American history. This Supreme Court decision overturns a significant government measure aimed at addressing gun violence, highlighting the deep divisions within the Court as the nation continues to grapple with the epidemic of mass shootings.

Notably, the decision did not center on the Second Amendment. Instead, it is part of a broader effort this term to curtail the power of administrative agencies. The ruling may signal support among the conservative justices for limiting the authority of these agencies, with several other related cases yet to be decided.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, issued a strong dissent. Summarizing her dissent from the bench, Sotomayor stated, “The majority puts machine guns back in civilian hands.” She argued that a bump stock-equipped semiautomatic rifle effectively operates as a machine gun, firing automatically without manual reloading by a single trigger pull.

Two acts regulate machine guns and their components: the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the National Firearms Act of 1934. A bump stock allows a rifle to slide rapidly back and forth, using the gun’s recoil to speed up trigger pulls. Before the Trump administration banned them, bump stocks were legal because they increased firing speed by quickly pulling the trigger multiple times, not just once.

The decision prompted an immediate backlash. Democrats criticized former President Donald J. Trump, attributing the outcome to his actions and his nominees on the Court. President Biden, in a statement, urged Congress to ban bump stocks, asserting that Americans should not have to live in fear of mass shootings. Speaking at an event, Trump did not directly address the decision but reaffirmed his commitment to upholding the Second Amendment.

Michael Cargill, a Texas gun shop owner, challenged the bump stock ban with support from the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a group funded by conservative billionaire Charles Koch. Cargill expressed his joy at the decision, viewing it as a significant victory for gun rights and a precedent for challenging future ATF regulations. He recounted that he was overwhelmed with emotion upon seeing the decision on the Supreme Court’s website.

Justice Thomas criticized the dissenting justices for what he perceived as a misinterpretation of the definition of a machine gun. Justice Thomas argued that a bump stock does not transform a semiautomatic rifle into a machine gun. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., in a concurring opinion, echoed this sentiment, asserting that the statutory language does not support classifying bump stocks as machine guns.

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor contended that the majority’s interpretation overlooked Congress’s intent and the practical impact of bump stocks. She argued that the majority’s reliance on technical details obscured the real-world functioning of the device, which enables rapid firing akin to machine guns.

The lethal potential of bump stocks was tragically demonstrated in October 2017 when Stephen Paddock used them during the Las Vegas shooting, killing 60 people and injuring hundreds. This incident led to heightened political pressure and the Trump administration’s eventual implementation of the bump stock ban.

Conflicting rulings in lower federal courts made Supreme Court intervention more likely. Initially, a federal judge in Texas ruled against Michael Cargill, the plaintiff, challenging the bump stock ban. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, known for its conservative stance, sided with Cargill, setting the stage for a Supreme Court review. In its decision, Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod of the Fifth Circuit concluded that bump stocks do not meet the technical definition of a machine gun under federal law. Dissenting judges argued that this interpretation effectively legalizes a device capable of mass destruction.