WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court on Friday declared unlawful a federal ban on “bump stock” devices that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire rapidly like machine guns, rejecting yet another firearms restriction — this time one enacted under Republican former president Donald Trump.

The justices, in a 6-3 ruling authored by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, upheld a lower court’s decision siding with Michael Cargill, a gun shop owner and gun rights advocate from Austin, Texas, who challenged the ban by claiming that a US agency improperly interpreted a federal law banning machine guns as extending to bump stocks. The conservative justices were in the majority, with the liberal justices dissenting.

Mass shooting

The rule was imposed in 2019 by the Trump administration after the devices were used during a 2017 mass shooting, the worst in US history, which killed 58 people and left over 500 injured, at a Las Vegas country music festival.

Democratic President Joe Biden, whose administration defended the rule in court, said the decision “strikes down an important gun safety regulation”.

“Americans should not have to live in fear of this mass devastation,” Biden added, saying he has “used every tool in my administration to stamp out gun violence”.

“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,” Biden said.

The case centred on how the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firea­rms and Explosives (ATF), a Justice Department agency, interpreted a law called the National Firearms Act, which defined machine guns as weapons that can “automatically” fire more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger”.

“We hold that a semi-automatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not a machine gun because it cannot fire more than one shot by a single function of the trigger. And, even if it could, it would not do so automatically. “The ATF therefore exceeded its statutory authority by issuing a rule that classifies bump stocks as machine guns,” Thomas wrote.

Federal law prohibits the sale or possession of machine guns, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Bump stocks use a semi-automatic’s recoil to allow it to slide back and forth while “bumping” the shooter’s trigger finger, resulting in rapid fire. Federal officials had said the rule was needed to protect public safety in a nation facing persistent firearms violence.

Deadly consequences

In a dissent, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the ruling would have “deadly consequences”, saying the court’s majority “casts aside Congress’s definition of `machinegun’ and seizes upon one that is inconsistent with the ordinary meaning of the statutory text and unsupported by context or purpose”.

“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. A bump-stock-equipped semi-automatic rifle fires `automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger’. Because I, like Congress, call that a machine gun, I respectfully dissent,” Sotomayor said.

After a gunman used weapons outfitted with bump stocks in the Las Vegas shooting spree that killed 58 people, the Trump administration prohibited the devices.

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2024

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