US supreme court strikes down federal ban on ‘bump stock’ devices for guns


Conservative bloc

  • Alito – Majority

  • Barrett – Majority

  • Gorsuch – Majority

  • Kavanaugh – Majority

  • Roberts – Majority

  • Thomas – Majority

Liberal bloc

  • Jackson – Minority

  • Kagan – Minority

  • Sotomayor – Minority

The US supreme court has struck down a federal ban on “bump stocks”, the devices which can vamp up semiautomatic firearms to discharge ammunition almost as rapidly as machine guns and that have been behind some of the most devastating mass shootings in recent history.

The ruling was 6-3, with the court’s liberal justices dissenting from the conservative majority’s decision. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said that a semiautomatic firearm equipped with a bump stock did not meet the definition of a machine gun, which are subject to stricter regulations.

Joe Biden condemned the ruling and called on Congress to take further action on gun safety, reiterating his demand to pass a federal assault weapons ban.

“Today’s decision strikes down an important gun safety regulation. Americans should not have to live in fear of this mass devastation,” Biden said. “We know thoughts and prayers are not enough. I call on Congress to ban bump stocks, pass an assault weapon ban and take additional action to save lives – send me a bill and I will sign it immediately.”

The top court’s ruling in Garland v Cargill nullifies the Trump administration’s 2018 regulation from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which ordered anyone who owned a bump stock to destroy it or hand it over to federal agents. The rule was passed after the devastating 2017 mass shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas, in which a gunman fired more than 1,000 rounds, killing 60 people and injuring almost 500.

After the ban, Michael Cargill, a US army veteran who owned a gun store in Austin, Texas, gave up several bump stocks in his possession. He then challenged the regulation before the supreme court.

In his concurring opinion, the conservative justice Samuel Alito argued that the Las Vegas shooting “did not change the statutory text or its meaning”, suggesting the onus was on Congress to address the legality of bump stocks.

“That event demonstrated that a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock can have the same lethal effect as a machine gun, and it thus strengthened the case for amending [the law on machine guns],” Alito wrote. “But an event that highlights the need to amend a law does not itself change the law’s meaning.”

The US vice-president, Kamala Harris, was critical of the court’s ruling.

“Weapons of war have no place on the streets of a civil society. That is why Democrats and Republicans alike supported the federal government banning bump stocks,” she said.

Speaking out while traveling to Atlanta, Georgia, on Friday to attend the annual conference of the 100 Black Men of America Inc, a mentoring organization, Harris said: “What the court did today is really rolling back what otherwise is important progress to be made to prevent gun violence in America.”

She said “voters have a choice in November”, between the Biden-Harris administration and Donald Trump who earlier this year told an Iowa community that had just suffered a school shooting in its midst to “get over it”.

Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said “the far-right supreme court continues their unprecedented assault on public safety” while Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic US senator, posted that bump stocks “are designed to kill en masse”.

The National Association for Gun Rights celebrated the decision and called on the supreme court to issue similar rulings in cases involving “ghost guns” and pistol braces.

“The ATF has wandered so far out of its lane for so long, it can’t even find the road any more,” said Dudley Brown, the association’s president. “The ATF has gone rogue in assuming lawmaking authority that it does not have with pistol brace rules, homemade firearms, who a gun dealer is, etc, and they must be reined in.”

But in her scathing dissent, the liberal justice Sonia Sotomayor accused her conservative colleagues of ignoring bump stocks’ ability to transform semiautomatic firearms into much more powerful and deadly weapons.

“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.”

She expressed concern that the ruling would only contribute to more mass shootings, writing: “The majority’s artificially narrow definition hamstrings the government’s efforts to keep machine guns from gunmen like the Las Vegas shooter.”

The scrapping of the ban dismayed gun safety organizations such as Sandy Hook Promise, which has warned that bump stocks make guns all the more deadly by allowing multiple shots to be fired every second with just one pull of the trigger. Public reaction was so strong after the Las Vegas disaster that even the National Rifle Association, a body notorious for opposing gun regulations, joined the call for the add-ons to be taken out of circulation.

“Guns outfitted with bump stocks fire like machine guns, they kill like machine guns, and they should be banned like machine guns – but the supreme court just decided to put these deadly devices back on the market,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. “We urge Congress to right this wrong and pass bipartisan legislation banning bump stocks, which are accessories of war that have no place in our communities.”

But with a Republican-controlled House, the passage of a bill banning bump stocks appears unlikely at this point.