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Supreme Court agrees to hear case over ban on bump stocks for firearms

Federal bump stock ban goes into effect
Federal bump stock ban goes into effect 00:39

Washington — The Supreme Court on Friday said it will consider a challenge to a Trump-era regulation that bans so-called "bump stocks," a firearms modification that increases the rate of fire of semi-automatic rifles.

In a brief unsigned order, the court agreed to decide the case, known as Garland v. Cargill. There were no noted dissents. The justices also took up a case involving the National Rifle Association, and a third dispute related to arbitration agreements.

At the center of the legal battle over bump stocks is a rule from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, issued in 2018 that expanded the definition of "machine gun" prohibited under the National Firearms Act to include bump stocks. Any person found with the device would be subject to a felony.

The ban arose after a gunman used semi-automatic weapons outfitted with bump stock devices in a 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people and injured more than 500. The devices allowed the shooter to fire "several hundred rounds of ammunition" into the crowd that were attending a concert. It was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

The legal fight over the bump stock ban

A bump stock device that fits on a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing speed, making it similar to a fully automatic rifle, is shown here at a gun store on Oct. 5, 2017, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A bump stock device that fits on a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing speed, making it similar to a fully automatic rifle, is shown here at a gun store on Oct. 5, 2017, in Salt Lake City, Utah. George Frey/Getty Images

Michael Cargill, the man who brought the case now before the court, bought two bump stocks in April 2018, before the ATF issued its final rule outlawing them, but turned in the devices in March 2019 after the ban went into effect. That same day, he filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Texas challenging the ban on numerous grounds.

The district court sided with the federal government and determined that bump stocks allow more than one shot to be fired by a single pull of the trigger. It also found that a bump stock creates a weapon that fires more than one shot "automatically" because the device is a self-acting mechanism that enables continuous fire.

A three-judge appeals court panel agreed with the district court's conclusion that bump stocks qualify as machine guns under federal law. But the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed the panel's decision under a legal principle that requires the court to side with the challenger when a law is ambiguous. After determining that the National Firearms Act is ambiguous in two areas, the 5th Circuit concluded that a non-mechanical bump stock is not a machine gun under the law.

The Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to take up the dispute over the bump stock ban in April, arguing that ATF's rule didn't change the scope of the prohibition on machine guns and instead was a means of informing the public of the agency's view that bump stocks are machine guns.

"Bump stocks allow a shooter to fire hundreds of bullets a minute by a single pull of the trigger. Like other machine guns, rifles modified with bump stocks are exceedingly dangerous; Congress prohibited the possession of such weapons for good reason," the Justice Department told the Supreme Court in a filing. "The decision below contradicts the best interpretation of the statute, creates an acknowledged circuit conflict, and threatens significant harm to public safety."

The Biden administration told the court that the 5th Circuit's decision conflicts with others from at least three appellate courts, all of which rejected challenges to the bump stock ban. The Supreme Court, too, has turned away disputes over the rule and has declined to stop its enforcement.

If allowed to stand, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar warned that the consequences of the lower court's ruling will likely "reverberate nationwide," and "is likely to mean that manufacturers within the Fifth Circuit will be able to make and sell bump stocks to individuals without background checks and without registering or serializing the devices."

"Given the nationwide traffic in firearms, there is little reason to believe that such devices will remain confined to the Fifth Circuit," she added.

Lawyers for Cargill are also urging the Supreme Court to take up the challenge to ATF's bump stock ban, arguing that the definition of machine gun under federal law is an issue "that affects many Americans."

Americans bought 520,000 bump stocks during a nine-year span when they were legal, and the new prohibition requires them to be surrendered or destroyed, Cargill's attorneys said in a filing.

"Despite ATF's previous assurances that federal law permitted possession of a bump stock, the Final Rule now brands as criminals all those who ever possessed a bump stock," the lawyers wrote.

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