Supreme Court hears challenge to Trump-era ban on bump stocks in a major gun control case

ByJohn Fritze, CNN, CNNWire
Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Felon accused of turning weapon into machine gun
Pasadena police arrest a man accused of modifying a gun is coming in the midst of a major Supreme Court decision on bump stocks.

For Michael Cargill, the thorny dispute over bump stocks is only partly about the controversial devices themselves.

It's also about what Cargill views as government overreach.

The video is from a previous report.

"It's the principle of it," said the 54-year-old Texas gun store owner who six years ago sued over a federal ban on the devices, which allow people to fire semi-automatic rifles far more rapidly. "We definitely never should have opened those floodgates in the first place."

The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in Cargill's case challenging the Donald Trump-era regulation that treats bump stocks as machine guns and bans Americans from owning them. The devices allow shooters to turn semi-automatic rifles into weapons that can fire several hundred rounds per minute.

Though the appeal doesn't involve the Second Amendment, it once again thrusts the fraught debate over guns onto the Supreme Court's docket as the nation continues to reel from mass shootings. The ban was a response to the 2017 Las Vegas shooting in which a gunman armed with semi-automatic rifles and the devices opened fire on a concert from his hotel suite, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds more.

EXPLAINER | Why semi-automatic rifles like those used in recent shootings can cause so much damage

It's also the latest of several important cases this year that will give the court's 6-3 conservative majority an opportunity to limit the power of federal agencies.

The dispute is loosely tied to a gun control law Congress enacted in the 1930s intended to target infamous gangsters like Al Capone and John Dillinger. Responding to grisly crimes in which machine guns were used to rob banks or ambush police, lawmakers stepped in and initially required owners to register the weapons.

But the law was amended several times and, by 1986, it prohibited Americans from transferring or possessing a machine gun in most circumstances. Critically, the law defined "machine gun" as a weapon that fires more than one round with "a single function of the trigger."

Both the Trump and Biden administrations, as well as gun control groups, say the way bump stocks work mean they qualify as machine guns. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reclassified the devices in 2018 and barred people from buying or owning them.

At the time, Trump - who has long enjoyed support from gun rights groups - described bump stocks as converting "legal weapons into illegal machines."

The ATF rule made possession of a bump stock a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The agency estimated that as many as 520,000 bump stocks were sold between 2010 and 2018.

Bump stocks replace a semi-automatic rifle's regular stock, the part of a gun that rests against the shoulder. The device lets shooters harness the recoil to mimic automatic firing if they hold their trigger finger in place.

"What was true in the age of Al Capone remains true today," said Billy Clark, senior litigation attorney for the Giffords Law Center. "Machine guns are the weapon of choice for those seeking to terrorize the public and to commit mass murder."

For Marisa Marano, who survived the Las Vegas shooting, the legal debate over definitions is beside the point. She knows what she heard.

"We'll never forget the sound of the machine gun firing into the crowd that night," Marano said. "Many stomachs drop in Las Vegas when breaking news alerts go off on the phones about a shooting in the area."

Ongoing fight over executive branch and agency power

Opponents say the ATF went too far in classifying bump stocks as machine guns, especially since the agency had for years said they were not covered by the law.

Mark Chenoweth, president and chief legal officer of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, which is representing Cargill, said that if Congress had enacted a law banning bump stocks, the group wouldn't have sued. Instead, Chenoweth said, the ATF took it upon itself to bar the devices without involving the legislative branch.

"We don't think that's a power that's within ATF's ambit," he said. "They have exceeded their authority in doing that."

In that sense, the groups supporting Cargill are raising an issue that has emerged as a defining theme at the Supreme Court this term: How much power federal agencies have to approve federal regulations. Last month, the justices heard arguments in a case questioning how much deference courts must give those agencies when they approve regulations based on a law that's unclear.

In a separate matter argued in November, several justices appeared skeptical of how the Securities and Exchange Commission brings some enforcement actions for securities fraud, suggesting they could pare back that agency's power as well.

In the bump stock case, the dispute began when Cargill purchased two of the devices in 2018. He turned them over to the government and filed suit to get them back.

A US District Court in Texas and a panel of judges on the conservative 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Justice Department. But the full 5th Circuit then issued a fractured opinion last year siding with Cargill.

The Biden administration appealed to the Supreme Court in April. A decision is expected later this year.

Cargill's attorneys have been eager to stress that the case doesn't implicate the Second Amendment, and all of the political baggage such legal fights usually carry. Instead, they point out, the high court must simply decide what Congress meant when it included the term "machine gun" in the law.

Though the case doesn't rest on the Second Amendment, the nation's most prominent gun rights groups, such as the National Rifle Association, have lined up in favor of Cargill. The best-known gun control groups, meanwhile, including the Giffords Law Center and Everytown for Gun Safety, are siding with the government.

"This is bigger than the Second Amendment. This is bigger than firearms," Cargill said. "This will be the case that saves millions of Americans from becoming felons overnight."

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