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Supreme Court hears arguments on legality of bump stocks for rifles

A bump stock Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber, file

Supreme Court hears arguments on legality of bump stocks for rifles

Department of Justice Principal Deputy Solicitor General Brian Fletcher told the justices in oral arguments on Wednesday that rifles fitted with bump stock devices are legally machine guns. He argued that bump stocks allow a shooter to quickly fire dozens of bullets with only one function of the trigger—simply pushing forward on the stock. Fletcher argued that fitting weapons with bump stocks makes them machine guns under the federal definition. Private ownership of machine guns is banned under the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986.

How did this get to the Supreme Court? Gun store owner Michael Cargill in Austin, Texas, challenged a 2018 rule by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives calling weapons with bump stocks machine guns. The Trump administration issued that rule after a Las Vegas concert shooting in 2017 that killed almost 60 people. After the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Cargill, the Biden administration appealed to the Supreme Court.

What is Cargill’s argument in favor of bump stock devices? In his brief filed to the Supreme Court earlier this year, Cargill’s attorneys argued that semiautomatic weapons fitted with bump stocks are not machine guns under the definition of the law because the guns don’t fire “automatically.” He said shooters must maintain pressure on the trigger and the stock to continue firing. The government’s “Brief for the Petitioners” filed in December fleshed out the details of the position Fletcher summarized in his opening remarks during Wednesday’s arguments.

What questions did the justices have regarding these arguments? Justices in the arguments asked petitioners for details of how a weapon fitted with a bump stock would operate differently from, and similarly to, a machine gun. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson asked why the difference would even matter. Justice Neil Gorsuch said that the Justice Department’s 2018 ruling was “interpretive” and departed from almost a century of different presidential administrations’ interpretations of the rule. Jackson asked the respondents whether the bump stock ban stemmed from the “high rate of fire” instead of the “movement of the trigger.” Justice Elana Kagan pressed respondents on whether a weapon fitted with a bump stock was a machine gun, just with two triggers. Respondents argued that the difference between the two kinds of weapons lay in whether the gun fired multiple shots with one function of the trigger or whether the shooter had to maintain a certain static pressure to function the trigger multiple times quickly.

Dig deeper: From the WORLD archives, read about the Las Vegas concert shooting.

Josh Schumacher

Josh is a breaking news reporter for WORLD. He’s a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College.

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