Why the U.S. Supreme Court Stopped an ATF Bump-Stock Ban

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posted on June 18, 2024
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Richard Gillin courtesy Flickr

In what amounts to a victory for the rule of law, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the U.S. Congress writes federal law, not the bureaucracy. That is the basis for the high court’s ruling in Garland v. Cargill, written by Justice Clarence Thomas.

To a majority of the justices, this was a straightforward case of statutory interpretation. Federal law does strictly regulate machine guns, but it defines these fully automatic firearms as guns that can “automatically” fire multiple rounds “by a single function of the trigger.” It is no fine point that a bump stock doesn’t do that. As the majority explained in the ruling, a bump stock is “a plastic casing that allows every other part of the rifle to slide back and forth.”

The U.S. Congress, if a majority of elected members so desire, can rewrite the law. But, under the U.S. Constitution, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) does not have this power.

A bump stock simply helps a person to quickly and repeatedly “bump” the gun’s trigger forward against their trigger finger. The mechanics matter, wrote Justice Thomas, because the statutory definition of a machine gun “hinges on how many shots discharge when the shooter engages the trigger.” A semi-automatic rifle fires just one shot per trigger pull. This is true with or without a bump stock.

The three justices who are considered to be on the Left of American politics made a different argument. In a minority opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, they said that the law refers to a “single function of the trigger,” and so therefore what it really means is a “single action by the shooter to initiate a firing sequence.” 

That’s cute. It’s an attempt to allow the ATF to rewrite the law based on a semantic rewrite of simple words—and, as a precedent, it could empower federal bureaucrats to do all sorts of things without first going to Congress.

Sotomayor explains that “Just as the shooter of an M16 need only pull the trigger and maintain backward pressure (on the trigger), a shooter of a bump-stock-equipped AR-15 need only pull the trigger and maintain forward pressure (on the gun). Both shooters pull the trigger only once to fire multiple shots.” Sorry, but that is not true; with a bump stock, the person’s finger would still need to hit the trigger multiple times.

As Justice Thomas points out in the majority ruling, the ATF “on more than 10 separate occasions” determined that bump stocks do not qualify as machine guns. Indeed, in 2018, the ATF estimated that there could be up to 520,000 of them in circulation; therefore, the ATF allowed these items to be sold for years, but then they—in an administration that adores every restriction on the peoples’ Second Amendment rights it can think of—thinks it can, without Congress, effectively turn a half million or so citizens into potential felons!

Article I of the U.S. Constitution says: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”

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