Supreme Court rejects Trump-era ban on gun accessory used in massacre

A makeshift memorial is shown for the shooting that killed 60 people in 2017 in Las Vegas. (Hilary Swift/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday struck down a ban on bump stocks, which enable semiautomatic rifles to fire at speeds rivaling those of machine guns, erasing one of the government’s rare firearm regulations to result from a mass shooting.

The decision, by a vote of 6-3, split along ideological lines. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had exceeded its power when it prohibited the device by issuing a rule that classified bump stocks as machine guns.

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“We hold that a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not a ‘machine gun’ because it cannot fire more than one shot ‘by a single function of the trigger,’” Thomas wrote. His opinion included several diagrams of the firing mechanism, and he described in technical detail the internal workings of a firearm to show how a bump stock works.

The Trump administration enacted the ban after a shooter opened fire at a Las Vegas concert in 2017, one of the deadliest massacres in modern U.S. history.

The decision was a forceful rejection of one of the government’s few steps to address gun violence, particularly as legislative efforts have stalled in Congress. It also highlighted the deep divisions on the court as the country continues to grapple with mass shootings.

The narrowly written decision was not a Second Amendment challenge. Rather, it is one of several cases this term seeking to undercut the power of administrative agencies. The court has yet to issue many of those opinions, including a challenge to a seminal precedent known as Chevron. However, the bump stock decision could signal support among the conservative justices for curbing the authority of administrative agencies.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Sotomayor summarized her dissent from the bench, a practice reserved for profound disagreements and the first such announcement of the term. “The majority puts machine guns back in civilian hands,” she said.

“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.

“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 machine gun, I respectfully dissent.”

Under the National Firearms Act of 1934, Congress outlawed machine guns, defined 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.” That definition was expanded under the Gun Control Act of 1968 to include parts that can be used to convert a weapon into a machine gun, a category heavily regulated by the ATF.

A bump stock frees the weapon to slide back and forth rapidly, harnessing the energy from the kickback shooters feel when the weapon fires. The justices appeared divided over whether that counted as one pull of the trigger or multiple.

Until the Trump administration enacted its ban, bump stocks were considered legal; under an earlier interpretation of the law, they were found to increase the speed of a gun by sliding the stock back and forth to rapidly pull the trigger, not by “a single function of the trigger” as required for a machine gun.

The decision prompted immediate blowback. Democrats seized on it, blaming former President Donald Trump, saying that both his actions and his nominees on the court were decisive factors in the outcome.

President Joe Biden, in a statement, urged Congress to act to ban the device. “Americans should not have to live in fear of this mass devastation,” he said.

Trump said in a statement that the court’s decision should be respected. Discussing gun rights in a speech on Friday night, he made no direct acknowledgment of the decision or his part in the ban, vowing only to “fully uphold” the Second Amendment, which he called “so important.”

The man who challenged the bump stock ban is Michael Cargill, a gun shop owner in Texas, backed by the New Civil Liberties Alliance, an advocacy group with financial ties to Charles Koch, a billionaire who has long supported conservative and libertarian causes. The organization primarily targets what it considers unlawful uses of administrative power.

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