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

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Trump-era  ban on "bump stocks," simple devices that can allow automatic fire from otherwise semi-automatic guns.
Mandel Ngan
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Trump-era ban on "bump stocks," simple devices that can allow automatic fire from otherwise semi-automatic guns.

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the Trump-era federal ban on bump stocks, declaring that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives exceeded its authority when it banned the devices. The vote was 6-3, with the court’s three liberals in angry dissent.

President Trump ordered the ban in 2017 after a single gunman at a Las Vegas concert used multiple guns modified by bump stock devices to kill 60 people and injure 400—all in the space of 11 minutes. The subsequent ATF regulation banned bump stocks on grounds that they transform legal semi-automatic weapons into illegal machine guns. But on Friday, the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority struck down the law.

Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said that a semi-automatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not a "machine gun" because it doesn’t fire automatically. Bolstering his opinion with six diagrams illustrating how bump stocks work, Thomas noted that the ATF regulation was a reversal of the agency’s previous position.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito conceded that "the Congress that enacted” the 1986 law at issue here "would not have seen any material difference between a machine gun and a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock.” But, he said the words of the statute don’t allow the ban and only congress can change that.

Writing for the dissenters, Justice Sonia Sotomayor accused the conservative majority of once again turning a blind eye to the reality of gun violence, and making it yet more difficult to adopt measures aimed at preventing bloodshed.

The dispute between the majority and the dissent centered on how a bump stock-modified weapon operates. Joseph Blocher, co-director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law, explains that with a bump stock, the shooter puts his finger on the stock’s finger rest, and pushes the stock forward. “What the bump stock does essentially is bounce the gun,” he says. “That’s the bumping back and forth against your trigger finger. So, as long as you keep the finger held and the stock is working, it’ll keep firing itself. So functionally, it’s a machine gun and nobody seems to disagree about that.”

But Justice Thomas, speaking for the majority, said the bump stock doesn’t change the internal firing mechanism, so it can’t be classified as an illegal machine gun.

Justice Sotomayor In a rare oral dissent from the bench, called it “myopic” to “fixate” on the internal functions of the gun and not the rapid- shooting function that is added by a bump stock, a mechanism that allows the shooter to fire as many as 800 rounds a minute. Concluded Sotomayor: “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.”

The decision was a bitter disappointment for gun-control advocates. Kari Kuefler, who survived the Las Vegas shooting along with her three-month-old baby, teared up Friday as she talked about the Supreme Court decision, and its ripple effects.

“People are finding it hard to have safe spaces anymore, from their homes to their churches to their schools to their workplaces,” she said. “Where do we go?” she asked. “We need to know that our government is fighting to get that back for us.”

UCLA law professor Adam Winkler sees Friday’s decision as part and parcel of the high court’s aversion to agency regulations in general. “This is just another shot across the bow,” he says, adding that other gun control regulations may soon be on the chopping block, making it “much harder” for the ATF to regulate guns.

The White House knows that, too. On Friday President Biden quickly called on Congress to pass a ban on bump stocks, but the prospects for that are at best, unclear, given the persistent gridlock of modern times. And the gun lobby is very strategic about fighting these measures, observes UCLA’s Winkler, author of Gunfight: The Battle Over The Right To Bear Arms in America.

“This decision shows the success of the NRA’s long term strategy for combating gun control,” he observes. “After the Las Vegas massacre, the Trump Administration and members of congress were on the verge of passing new legislation to ban bump stocks. The NRA ran interference, pushing the Trump Administration to ban bump stocks through administrative agency regulation instead.”

He says the NRA was betting that given the current Supreme Court’s hostility to agency regulations, the court would ultimately strike down the ban on bump stocks. It turned out to be a good bet.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.