The Supreme Court Bump Stock Ruling Explained

Civil Rights Policy Brief #226 | By: Arvind Salem | June 25, 2024

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On October 1, 2017, a shooter equipped with a bump stock, a contraption fixed to assault rifles and generating automatic fire with a single trigger pull, opened fire at the Route 91 Festival shooting in Las Vegas, NV, executing the deadliest mass shooting in American history, tragically killing 58 individuals.

In the aftermath of this shooting, following pressure to ban bump stocks, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) under the Trump administration banned bump stocks for civilian use. However, as a federal agency, rather than Congress, its authority stretched only to enforcing existing law, not creating new ones. Yet, the ATF justified their rule as an extension of the ban on machine guns, relying on the “…  National Firearms Act, which defined machine guns as weapons that can “automatically” fire more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger.””

The Court, in a 6-3 decision across ideological lines on the case Garland v. Cargill,  ultimately ruled that this regulation was an unconstitutional overreach of executive authority. Justice Thomas, writing for the majority, wrote that “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”

In dissent, Justice Sotomayor criticized the Court for focusing on the technical inner workings of a gun, made clear not only by Justice Thomas’s language, but also by the fact that he employed many diagrams to explain his opinion, rather than focusing on the equivalent effects of both firearms on the victim. Referencing the similar characteristics, Sotomayor wrote that “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.”

Policy Analysis:

This decision is notable not only as another example towards the court’s seeming hostility towards gun control regulations, but also for its implications on other, newer, gun control regulations. These accessories, like bump stocks, have the net effect of turning legal semi automatic weapons into illegal machine guns. Many of these accessories are specific types of triggers, such as forced-reset triggers” or “wide-open triggers”, that allow shooters to fire more than 900 rounds in a minute with one continuous squeeze. In 2022, the AFT imposed restrictions on these triggers, but with this latest decision, gun owners could sue, and with this case as a precedent, spelling doom for these regulations. In fact, immediately after the court issued its ruling, lawyers for gun-rights groups suing to overturn the trigger restrictions filed a letter, which cited the new bump-stock decision. Through this decision, the court has set, or at least largely clarified, their definition of what constitutes a machine gun: that step is a critically important one for all cases involving gun accessories.

Engagement Resources

The following are all gun advocacy groups that argue for responsible gun control legislation and work to educate the public and legislators on the necessity of gun regulations. Given the executive branch’s diminished ability to act on this issue following this decision, readers interested in supporting gun control advocacy may be interested in these groups that also focus on legislative advocacy on all aspects of this issue.

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