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Supreme Court strikes down ban on rapid-fire ‘bump stocks’ like those used in Las Vegas mass shooting

The U.S. Supreme Court Building stands on June 14, 2024, in Washington, D.C. The Court released opinions for several cases today including a 6-3 decision striking down a federal ban on bump stocks instituted by U.S. President Donald Trump after the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas.  (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By David G. Savage Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Friday struck down a federal ban on “bump stocks” like those used in the nation’s deadliest mass shooting, when 60 people were killed and 500 wounded at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas in 2017.

In a 6-3 decision, the justices rejected the views of the Biden and Trump administrations and ruled that bump stocks could not be prohibited as illegal machine guns because the trigger action operates in a different way.

The court’s six conservatives were in the majority and the three liberals dissented.

While the ruling wipes out the federal regulation, bump stocks remain illegal under California law.

Justice Clarence Thomas, speaking for the court, said bump stocks do not meet the definition of a machine gun.

“A semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock does not fire more than one shot by a single function of the trigger,” he wrote in Garland vs. Cargill. “All that a bump stock does is accelerate the rate of fire by causing these distinct (functions) of the trigger to occur in rapid succession.”

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said a bump stock works like a machine gun.

“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,” she 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.” Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson agreed.

Gun safety advocates said Congress needs to take up the issue.

“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.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. agreed it was time for Congress to act.

“The horrible shooting spree in Las Vegas in 2017 did not change the statutory text or its meaning,” he wrote in a concurring opinion. “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. Now that the situation is clear, Congress can act.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) denounced the decision and said “Senate Democrats are ready to pass legislation to ban bump stocks, but we will need votes from Senate Republicans.”

While California will continue to enforce its state law, California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said a federal ban on bump stocks would make the state’s ban more effective.

“Federal laws that apply on a nationwide basis serve as an important complement to state firearms laws that protect our residents and communities from gun violence,” he said.

The case decided Friday did not involve the 2nd Amendment. Instead, it turned on how machine guns were described when Congress prohibited their sale. They were defined as weapons that fired automatically with a single pull of the trigger.

The Las Vegas shooter had an arsenal of assault-style rifles in his hotel room overlooking the concert site. Authorities later said 14 weapons were fitted with bump stocks that had permitted the gunman to fire more than 1,000 rounds in 11 minutes.

In response to the shooting, then-President Trump ordered the federal regulators to reclassify bump stocks as illegal machine guns because they permit a shooter to fire hundreds of rounds per minute. The Biden administration attorneys defended that rule.

Congress first restricted machine guns in 1934 in response to the gangland murders during Prohibition, including the Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. Since then, Congress has revised and updated the ban several times.

More than 500,000 bump stocks were said to be in private hands when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms issued its ban in 2018. Owners were told they needed to turn in those weapons.

Michael Cargill, a Texas gun store owner, turned in his two bump stocks and then sued to challenge the law. He won before the conservative 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans that said the wording of the law was ambiguous.

U.S. Solicitor Gen. Elizabeth Prelogar appealed and urged the justices to restore the ban.

Still pending before the Supreme Court this term is a major gun rights case. At issue in that case is a federal law that authorizes judges to deny guns to persons who were accused of domestic violence. The 5th Circuit Court ruled this provision violated the 2nd Amendment, and the justices are due to hand down a ruling on the Biden administration’s appeal in U.S. vs. Rahimi.

The justices are also weighing several appeals from Illinois contending the state’s ban on assault weapons violates the 2nd Amendment.

If the court votes to hear the appeals, it will cast doubt on California’s long-standing ban on rapid-fire weapons.