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Supreme Court sides with Austin gun dealer, striking down federal ban on bump stocks

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Trump-era  ban on "bump stocks," simple devices that can allow automatic fire from otherwise semi-automatic guns.
Mandel Ngan
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Trump-era ban on "bump stocks," simple devices that can allow automatic fire from otherwise semi-automatic guns.

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 6-3, 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.

The case was bought by the owner of a gun shop in Austin, Texas, who was forced to surrender two bump stocks after the ban went into effect. On Friday, the Supreme Court, siding with him, 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.

President Biden, in a statement, criticized the decision, adding: "Americans should not have to live in fear of this mass devastation."

"I call on Congress to ban bump stocks, pass an assault weapon ban, and take additional action to save lives – send me a bill and I will sign it immediately," he said.

The prospects of such a law passing Congress are slim to none.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
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