Supreme Court strikes down Trump-era federal ban on bump stocks

a building
The U.S. Supreme Court building. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on bump stocks Friday, declaring that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives exceeded its authority when it banned the devices on grounds they convert otherwise legal semi-automatic weapons into illegal machine guns. The vote was 63, with the court’s three liberals in angry dissent.

Writing for the court’s conservative supermajority, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that a semi-automatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not a “machine gun” because it does not fire more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger,” as the statute requires. He added that even if it could, it would not do so “automatically.” He wrote that the ATF exceeded its statutory authority by classifying bump stocks as machine guns.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that “the Congress that enacted” the law at issue here “would not have seen any material difference between a machinegun and a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bumpstock. But the statutory text is clear, and we must follow it.” He added that Congress could — if it wanted — amend the law.

The question before the court was whether a bump stock converted a semi-automatic weapon into a machine gun. The court said it does not.

President Trump ordered the ATF to ban the sale and possession of bump stocks in 2018 after a single gunman in Las Vegas, using multiple guns modified by bump stocks, killed 60 people and wounded 400 more — all in the space of 11 minutes. Machine guns have been illegal in the U.S. since 1934, almost a century, and Congress has twice amended the National Firearms Act to say that machine gun parts themselves count as machine guns. But on Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that the ban on bump stocks went too far.

Writing for the dissenters, Justice Sonia Sotomayor accused the conservative majority of once again turning a blind eye to the reality of gun violence, and making it yet more difficult to adopt measures aimed at preventing bloodshed. She said the “majority’s artificially narrow definition hamstrings the Government’s efforts to keep machineguns from gunmen like the Las Vegas shooter.”

“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.

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