Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Saturday, July 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Sotomayor warns SCOTUS overturn of bump stock ban ‘puts machine guns back in the public’s hands’

Sotomayor read part of her dissent aloud from the bench, warning that the decision brought the nation back to the conditions that led to the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The three liberal justices on the Supreme Court resoundingly disagreed with the conservative majority’s decision on Friday to strike down a federal ban on bump stocks, a device that can modify semiautomatic rifles to fire like an automatic rifle.

In a 6-3 decision, led by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court found that the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had misapplied a federal statute meant to define automatic rifles as firearms with the ability to shoot more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger.” 

The three liberal-appointed justices, led by Sonia Sotomayor, found that the majority’s reading of the statue — that a bump-stock-equipped rifle “resets” after each shot with each reset a new “function” — was a clear misinterpretation of Congress’s intent in creating the National Firearms Act of 1934.

“The majority’s reading flies in the face of this court’s standard tools of statutory interpretation,” Sotomayor wrote in her opinion. “By casting aside the statute’s ordinary meaning both at the time of its enactment and today, the majority eviscerates Congress’s regulation of machine guns and enables gun users and manufacturers to circumvent federal law.”

Sotomayor, a Barack Obama appointee, read a portion of her dissent aloud from the bench, warning that the decision will only make automatic rifles more accessible.

She began by referencing the inciting incident in the case and the federal ban: the 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival, where 64-year-old Stephen Paddock used several semiautomatic rifles equipped with bump stocks to kill 58 people and wounded over 500. 

With the bump stocks, Paddock was able to fire more than 1,000 rounds from a 32nd-floor suite of the Mandalay Bay hotel. The stocks used the recoil energy from each shot to pull the gun back and forth, allowing Paddock to mimic the fire rate of an automatic rifle.

In the wake of the shooting, the ATF reversed a long-standing policy that allowed the sale and use of bump stocks, clarifying its definition and ordering owners of the stocks to either destroy or surrender them to avoid prosecution. 

By returning to the ATF’s previous policy, Sotomayor warned, the country would revert to the conditions that allowed the Las Vegas mass shooting . 

“With this decision, the majority puts machine guns back in the public’s hands,” Sotomayor said Friday. 

Sotomayor, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson — an Obama appointee and Joe Biden appointee, respectively — found that Congress had clearly intended to define automatic rifles by the “human input” required to fire multiple rounds at a time, not by the "internal mechanics” of the weapon.

She disagreed with the majority’s reading of the relevant statute, 26 U.S. Code Section 5845, calling it “not a hard case.”

“All of the textual evidence points to the same interpretation. A bump-stock-equipped semiautomatic rifle is a machine gun because (1) with a single pull of the trigger, a shooter can (2) fire continuous shots without any human input beyond maintaining forward pressure,” Sotomayor wrote. 

In her view, the majority focused too much on the internal mechanism of the firearms and their interpretation was so convoluted it required six diagrams and an animation “to decipher the meaning of the statute.”

She noted that in 1934, Congress held hearings prior to passing the National Firearms Act, where the then-president of the National Rifle Association emphasized the difference between pistols and automatic rifles. 

The NRA president emphasized that a pistol is clearly not an automatic rifle because a shooter must “release the trigger and pull it again for the second shot.” Sotomayor noted that the contemporaneous definition was far afield from the majority’s finding that a “reset” of the trigger mechanism precluded a firearm from counting as an automatic rifle. 

Further, the Supreme Court had previously held in a 1994 case, Staples v. United States, that the definition was dependent on the “human input,” not the mechanism. 

Following the high court’s decision, the Giffords Law Center, a gun control advocacy group named for former Arizona Representative Gabby Giffords — who was injured in a 2011 shooting in Arizona and is married to Arizona Senator Mark Kelly — issued a statement decrying the ruling. 

"Today’s Supreme Court decision overturning ATF’s bump stock ban is reckless and dangerous,” Giffords Litigation Director Esther Sanchez-Gomez said in the statement. “The majority of justices today sided with the gun lobby instead of the safety of the American people. This is a shameful decision.” 

Follow @Ryan_Knappy
Categories / Courts, Law, National, Politics, Second Amendment

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.

Loading...