US supreme court justices appear divided in hearing over bump stock ban

<span>Bump stocks were used in the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas in which 58 people were killed.</span><span>Photograph: Allen Breed/AP</span>
Bump stocks were used in the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas in which 58 people were killed.Photograph: Allen Breed/AP

The US supreme court appeared divided in a case that could determine whether bump stocks, a firearm accessory that allows semiautomatic weapons to fire like machine guns, will be allowed back on to the civilian market.

The result of the case could also determine whether the US Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) can regulate other weapons and accessories like pistol braces and homemade firearms known as ghost guns.

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The court will have to determine whether bump stocks are banned based on the statutory definition of a machine gun in the 1986 National Firearms Act (NFA), which encompasses any part that is intended to convert a semiautomatic firearm into a fully automatic one.

Bump stocks were created in 2008 by Jeremiah Cottle, a Texas-based air force veteran, and are typically made of plastic and attached to the stock, the back part of the rifle that is held against the shooter’s shoulder. They use the recoil of a semiautomatic firearm to imitate the action of a machine gun.

While the fire rate can mimic that of a machine gun, which requires only a single trigger pull to fire off multiple rounds, the trigger on a gun outfitted with a bump stock resets after each round is fired and has to be actuated before another round is expelled.

Bump stocks came into public view in October 2017 after a gunman opened fire from a Las Vegas hotel suite into a nearby country music festival, killing 58 people and injuring 500 others. It is the largest mass shooting in modern US history.

After the shooting, then president Donald Trump asked his administration to review how bump stocks were regulated. Later, Trump directed the US Department of Justice to craft ban regulations after a 19-year-old killed 17 students in February 2018 at a high school in Parkland, Florida, although the shooter did not use a bump stock in the attack.

The ATF reclassified bump stocks as machine guns, which made owning a bump stock illegal and represented a sharp reversal from the bureau’s previous stance on the item.

There were about 520,000 bump stocks in circulation when the ban went into effect in 2019, requiring people to either surrender or destroy them, at a combined estimated loss of $100m, the plaintiffs said in court documents.

On 25 March 2019, Michael Cargill, a Texas gun shop owner and firearm instructor whose case worked its way to the supreme court’s docket, surrendered his bump stocks to the government. That same day, he filed a complaint in the district court of western Texas against the then attorney general, William Barr, the US Department of Justice, the acting director of the ATF and the ATF itself.

Much of Wednesday’s hearing focused on what “function of the trigger” means when a bump stock is attached to a rifle.

Questioning also homed in on whether the machine gun ban, created in 1934 to address the gun violence spurred by organized crime of the day, allowed for the bump stock bans.

“Intuitively, I am entirely sympathetic to your argument,” said Justice Amy Coney Barrett. “I think the question is, why didn’t Congress pass that legislation to make this cover it more clearly?”

Brian Mitchell, the deputy US solicitor general who argued on behalf of the government, said that the bump stocks have automated the trigger, allowing the rifle to fire without the continued action of the shooter; that the “trigger pull” and “trigger function” are used synonymously; and that a bump stock eliminates the need for a shooter to manually impact the trigger, which makes it fit the legal definition of a machine gun.

Jonathan Mitchell, the attorney arguing for Cargill, said that the trigger is completely unchanged by the addition of the bump stock, and has to reset after each round is fired, making it distinct from a gun that fires continuously without someone having to release and repull the trigger.

Both agree, however, that a firearm outfitted with a bump stock can fire at a rate – up to 400 to 800 rounds per minute – that is comparable to that of a traditional machine gun that expels multiple rounds after one trigger pull.

A bump stock’s ultimate fire rate, the justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ketanji Brown-Jackson and Elena Kagan posited, is the primary concern that bump stocks elicit versus any mechanical changes made to the trigger.

“It’s not the mechanism, it’s the achievement,” Brown-Jackson said in her questioning of Mitchell, who also represented Donald Trump in the former president’s case against the state of Colorado over his exclusion from the state’s ballot.

Justice Neil Gorsuch questioned the justice department about the effects of the about-face on the millions of people who bought bump stocks while they were legal. Fletcher responded that the justice department doesn’t intend to prosecute people who turned in their bump stocks under the new rule, though he later indicated that people who bought them after the rule was finalized could potentially face prosecution.

This is the second firearm policy case the supreme court has heard since its high-profile decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v Bruen in 2022, which overturned New York’s handgun law and created a “history and tradition” test for firearm regulation.

The first post-Bruen case, United States v Rahimi, focuses on whether people who are under domestic violence restraining orders should be allowed to own a gun.

That case was directly tied to the 2022 decision, as arguments at the time focused on a federal law that prohibits anyone under a domestic violence restraining order from possessing a gun. The Cargill case, on the other hand, focuses less on whether or not bump stock bans violate the second amendment and precedent set by Bruen and more on whether the ATF overstepped with its interpretation of the federal machine gun ban.

A decision on both cases is expected to come down this summer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report