WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Friday to rule on whether the government may ban the sale or use of “bump stocks” that can transform a semiautomatic rifle into one that shoots hundreds of bullets per minute with a single pull of the trigger.
Since 1934, federal law has banned machines guns, but there has been dispute over whether a bump stock can be outlawed as a type of machine gun.
The government was prompted to adopt new regulations after a shooter in Las Vegas used semiautomatic weapons equipped with bump stocks to kill 58 people and wound more that 500 others. Officials said the bump stocks allowed the shooter to rapidly fire “several hundred rounds of ammunition” into a crowd that had gathered for an outdoor concert on Oct. 1, 2017.
Congress did not revise the law, but the Trump administration through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives issued new rules in 2018 that classified bump stocks as machine guns prohibited by law.
It said the bump stock device functions as “a self-acting or self-regulating mechanism that allows the firing of multiple rounds through a single pull of the trigger.”
The regulations were challenged around the country but were upheld by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, the 6th Circuit Court in Cincinnati and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
But the conservative 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans issued a fractured 13-3 ruling in January that found the regulation was illegal.
Several judges said bump stocks do not work just with a single pull of the trigger, and others said it was not clear whether they could be described as machine guns.
Solicitor Gen. Elizabeth Prelogar appealed the decision from the 5th Circuit and urged the justices to resolve the dispute as soon as possible.
Until the ruling is reversed, “manufacturers within the 5th Circuit [which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi] will be able to make and sell bump stocks to individuals without background checks and without registering or serializing the devices,” Prelogar said in the appeal.
Lawyers for Michael Cargill, a Texas gun dealer who sued to challenge the regulation, also urged the court to hear the case.
“The definition of ‘machinegun’ is an important issue of statutory construction that affects many Americans. The circuit split leaves citizens throughout the country in a quandary over whether their possession of a bump stock is illegal and might subject them to 10 years’ imprisonment,” they said.
They told the court that according to bureau estimates, more than 520,000 bump stocks were purchased in the years before the new regulation was adopted in 2018.
The court is likely to schedule arguments in Garland vs. Cargill early next year and rule by late June.
Unlike other gun disputes, the case does not turn on the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms.
On Tuesday, the court will hear arguments in a major test of the Second Amendment. At issue is a 5th Circuit Court ruling that struck down the federal law that denies firearms to someone who is subject to a domestic violence restraining order.