Supreme Court Overturns ATF Bump Stock Rule

The United States Supreme Court has overturned the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’ (ATF) rule classifying bump stocks as machine guns. The high court voted 6-3 that the rule was unconstitutional since the ATF lacked the authority to change Congress’ definition of machine guns, as laid out in the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968.

United States Supreme Court Justices
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against the ATF’s Bump Stock Rule. (

Then-President Donald Trump directed the ATF to find a way to ban bump stocks following the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that killed 58 people and wounded over 500 more. Police found bump stocks in the murderer’s hotel room. The gun community has harshly criticized Trump’s action. Others say he involved the ATF to keep Congress from changing the definition of what constitutes a machine gun, which would have been far worse. I can’t say one way or the other, though several bump stock bans were introduced in Congress. They went nowhere after the rule took effect. ATF made their rule, however it happened, and that rule is no longer in place.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Sonia Sotomayor penned the dissent, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Cargill v. Garland

Texas gun store owner Michael Cargill brought the suit after surrendering two bump stocks, under protest, to the ATF. Cargill is not a Second Amendment case but rather a challenge to the ATF’s authority to make rules that carry the weight of federal law, as the bump stock rule did. Cargill addresses separation of powers, not the right to keep and bear arms.

The decision basically boiled down to the statutory definition of a machine gun. The majority opinion’s opening paragraph reads: “Congress has long restricted access to ‘machinegun[s],’ a category of firearms defined by the ability to ‘shoot, automatically more than one shot . . . by a single function of the trigger’…Semiautomatic firearms, which require shooters to reengage the trigger for every shot, are not machine guns. This case asks whether a bump stock—an accessory for a semiautomatic rifle that allows the shooter to rapidly reengage the trigger (and therefore achieve a high rate of fire)—converts the rifle into a ‘machinegun.’ We hold that it does not and therefore affirm.”

Bump stocks
This is officially not a “machine gun.” For now, anyway. (

Thomas then explains the difference between automatic and semiautomatic weapons and how a bump stock functions. He also addresses the phrase “single function of the trigger,” complete with diagrams, and the term “automatically,” regarding a bump stock-equipped rifle’s functionality. I won’t go into that for this audience. He also addresses the fact that the ATF had affirmed ten different times, through several administrations, that bump stocks did not meet Congress’ definition of a machine gun.

That obviously changed after Trump’s order in response to the Las Vegas murders. The rule took effect in 2018, essentially amending the statutory definition of machine guns to include bump stocks. It also rescinded previous guidance that contradicted that new definition.

Pages 20-21 of the opinion include an interesting discussion on how slam firing an Ithaca Model 37 shotgun compares to a bump stock-equipped rifle and the definition of “automatically.” You can find the opinion on the Supreme Court’s website if you’re interested.

Alito’s Concurring Opinion

Justice Alito’s short, three-paragraph concurring opinion is worth a look because it may point to what’s next. We can’t assume that the government is done with bump stocks. Remember, this wasn’t a Second Amendment case. It merely affirmed that the ATF doesn’t have the power to change statutory law to suit its ends. I’ll include the concurrence’s entire text:

“I join the opinion of the Court because there is simply no other way to read the statutory language. There can be little doubt that the Congress that enacted 26 U. S. C. §5845(b) (the law defining machine guns) would not have seen any material difference between a machine gun and a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock. But the statutory text is clear, and we must follow it.

The horrible shooting spree in Las Vegas in 2017 did not change the statutory text or its meaning. That event demonstrated that a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock can have the same lethal effect as a machine gun, and it thus strengthened the case for amending §5845(b). However, an event that highlights the need to amend a law does not itself change the law’s meaning.

There is a simple remedy for the disparate treatment of bump stocks and machine guns. Congress can amend the law—and perhaps would have done so already if ATF had stuck with its earlier interpretation. Now that the situation is clear, Congress can act.”

Did you catch that? Alito is pretty much asking Congress to step in and rewrite the law. That is a dangerous proposition from the gun rights perspective. You may or not care about bump stocks. But you should care about Congress, most of whom know absolutely nothing about firearms, redefining terms like “machine gun,” “automatically,” and “semiautomatic.”

ATF tax stamp
Will bump stocks become NFA items like suppressors? Maybe. (Shutterstock)

What Now?

We can’t know for sure but expect to see a few proposed bump stock bans introduced in Congress. The gun control groups are certain to push for them. A pro-gun Supreme Court Justice just invited them to do so.

The question will then be about how those bills change certain definitions and how much support they can garner. If one of those bills passes and becomes law, it will then be a Second Amendment question, and the legal battle may start all over again.

This is a nice win for now, mainly because it checks the power of executive agencies and their ability to shape federal law. But the bump stock debate is far from over. We’ve merely turned the page to a new chapter. Stay tuned.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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