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

The ruling marks the latest gun case to come before the nation's top court.

Supreme Court Police officers outside of the building.
Officers outside of the Supreme Court building on Thursday. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

The Supreme Court on Friday ruled that a "bump stock" attachment does not convert a semiautomatic rifle into a "machine gun," which is prohibited under federal law. The 6-3 vote aligned with the conservative supermajority's previous decisions in gun cases, such as its 2022 decision to expand gun rights.

The court found that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives overstepped its authority by enacting the ban on bump stocks when it determined that the devices were classified as machine guns. Civilians now have access to bump stocks again.

In the aftermath of the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting that killed dozens of people, the ATF issued a rule that said rifles equipped with bump stocks should fall under the legal definition of machine guns, which have been banned since 1986.

Read the Supreme Court ruling here:

🧑‍⚖️ What the justices said

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion that a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock does not make it a fully automatic machine gun. A machine gun is defined as a weapon that can fire more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger,” which is not the case for rifles with bump stock attachments.

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the majority opinion would have “deadly consequences,” and said the decision complicates “the government’s efforts to keep machine guns from gunmen like the Las Vegas shooter.”

What is a bump stock?

Bump stocks are attachments for semiautomatic rifles that increase the speed at which bullets are fired. It replaces a rifle’s standard stock — the part held against the shoulder. The new stock then “bumps” back and forth between the shooter’s shoulder and the trigger, which makes the rifle fire more rapidly. It does not alter the rifle to make it fire automatically, which is how the classification has circumvented being defined as a fully automatic weapon. Private citizens in most U.S. states can buy and own fully automatic machine guns as long as they were legally registered and bought before May 19, 1986.

⚖️ This is not a Second Amendment challenge

Those who opposed the initial ban on bump stocks claimed that it was a violation of the Constitution's Second Amendment, which allows citizens the right to bear arms.

This case was not a challenge to the Second Amendment but instead an examination of the power of administrative agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, told Yahoo News that the decision "highlights the Supreme Court's skepticism of administrative agencies" and aligns with previous decisions made by conservative justices in "trying to scale back the authority of agencies."

"Although this case is not a Second Amendment case, it will make it harder for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to regulate guns," Winkler explained. "This case also shows the success of the NRA's long-term strategy."

🗣️ Reactions to the ruling

Anti-gun groups like Brady: United Against Gun Violence and Everytown have condemned the decision, claiming the Supreme Court has now put "countless lives in danger" by allowing "weapons of war." Everytown also called on Congress to "right this deadly wrong" by passing legislation to ban bump stocks.

Randy Kozuch, the executive director of the National Rifle Association, said in a statement that "the Supreme Court has properly restrained executive branch agencies to their role of enforcing, and not making, the law."

President Biden also issued a statement saying his administration will "continue to take action" against gun violence in the U.S.

“We know thoughts and prayers are not enough,” he said. “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.”

⬅️ How we got here

On Oct. 1, 2017, a Las Vegas gunman used firearms equipped with bump stocks to kill 60 people and wound hundreds more. In 2018, the ATF under the Trump administration issued a regulation saying rifles equipped with bump stocks should be classified as machine guns, which have been banned since 1986.

The case was brought by Michael Cargill, the owner of an Austin, Texas, gun store who had to turn in several bump stocks he had in his establishment after the federal agency published its rule. Cargill challenged the rule, seeking to get it overturned.

Arguments in the case were heard on Feb. 28.