Supreme court overturns federal ban on bump stocks, sparking controversy

Supreme Court, United States, Bump stock

Supreme Court has struck down the federal ban on bump stock devices, intensifying the ongoing debate over gun control in the United States. The 6-3 ruling on June 14,  followed ideological lines, marking another instance of the conservative majority limiting gun restrictions. This decision comes in the wake of the court’s 2022 landmark ruling that has significantly eased the challenge against modern gun control laws. Although the ruling does not directly implicate the Second Amendment right to bear arms, it challenges the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) interpretation of a law restricting machine guns.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, delved into the technical aspects of the law and the mechanics of bump stocks to explain the decision. The 1986 law defines machine guns as weapons that fire more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger.” According to Thomas, bump stocks do not meet this definition because “with or without a bump stock, a shooter must release and reset the trigger between every shot.” This interpretation contrasts sharply with the Trump administration’s 2018 decision to ban bump stocks following the devastating mass shooting in Las Vegas, where the devices were used to kill 60 people and injure hundreds more.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., concurring with Thomas, acknowledged the tragic impact of bump stocks but emphasized that it is Congress’s responsibility to amend the law if it intends to ban such devices. This sentiment underscores a broader judicial philosophy that federal agencies should not extend their regulatory reach beyond explicit statutory authorization.

In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, criticized the majority’s narrow interpretation. Sotomayor argued that the decision undermines the straightforward intent of the law, effectively putting machine guns back into civilian hands. “By maintaining a myopic view focused on these mechanisms, the majority puts machine guns back in the hands of the people,” she stated, highlighting the potential dangers this ruling poses to public safety.

The ruling has drawn swift and polarized reactions. President Joe Biden, Democratic leaders, and gun control advocates decried the decision, urging Congress to ban bump stocks and pass an assault weapons ban. Biden emphasized his willingness to sign such legislation immediately, reflecting the administration’s commitment to addressing gun violence. Democratic Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer described the ruling as an “assault on public safety,” and others expressed concerns that the decision would lead to more mass shootings.

Conversely, gun rights advocates and conservative legal scholars praised the ruling. Mark Chenoweth, president of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, emphasized that the decision reaffirms the principle that agencies cannot regulate beyond their statutory authorization. This perspective suggests that the ruling could have broader implications for federal agency regulations beyond the ATF context. The National Rifle Association (NRA) also welcomed the decision, asserting that the justices had “properly restrained executive branch agencies to their role of enforcing, and not making, the law.”

The legal battle over bump stocks has been contentious and multifaceted. Michael Cargill, a US Army veteran and gun shop owner, challenged the ban after being forced to surrender two bump stocks. He argued that the ATF exceeded its authority by reclassifying bump stock-equipped rifles as machine guns. This reclassification followed a period during which the ATF had deemed bump stocks legal, leading to the purchase of approximately 520,000 devices between 2008 and 2017.

Bump stocks are designed to replace the butt of a rifle, allowing the weapon to slide freely back and forth. This mechanism uses the recoil from firing to “bump” the trigger finger, enabling rapid fire that mimics automatic weapons. Federal appeals courts were divided on whether bump stocks meet the definition of a machine gun under the 1986 law, leading to the Supreme Court’s involvement in the case known as Garland v. Cargill.

The Supreme Court’s decision is part of a broader trend of limiting federal agency regulations. This term, the court has also addressed cases involving the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, reflecting a growing skepticism toward agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes. The ruling could also endanger bump stock bans in states with laws mirroring the federal machine gun statute, although most state prohibitions directly addressing bump stocks are likely to remain intact.

The decision follows the court’s 2022 ruling that struck down a New York law requiring a license to carry a gun in public. In that case, Thomas established a new test requiring gun restrictions to be consistent with the nation’s historical firearm regulations. This precedent has emboldened gun advocates to challenge numerous regulations, creating a complex and unsettled landscape for gun laws. Courts have issued conflicting rulings on restrictions such as bans on “ghost guns,” high-capacity magazines, and firearm purchases by young adults.

The Supreme Court is set to hear another significant gun case this term, United States v. Rahimi, which will determine whether individuals subject to domestic violence restraining orders have the constitutional right to possess guns. This case, alongside ongoing legal challenges to various gun regulations, underscores the intensifying judicial and legislative battles over gun control in America.

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the federal ban on bump stocks has profound implications for gun control and federal regulatory power. While advocates for gun rights celebrate the ruling as a victory for statutory interpretation and limited government, opponents warn of increased gun violence and public safety risks. As the legal landscape continues to evolve, the debate over how to balance constitutional rights with public safety concerns remains as contentious as ever.

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