Justices Debate, Appear Split on Bump Stock’s Legality After First Day of Oral Arguments

by Tommy Grant

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News reports on the Supreme Court’s first day of oral arguments in the case of Garland v. Cargill with their line of questioning suggesting the court may be inclined to uphold the Trump-era ban on bump stocks by the ATF, but not yet fully signaling whether a majority of justices would eventually back such a ruling. There was abundant debate with liberal justices drawing the usual line against anything supportive of gun rights and the conservative justices asking questions that reveal they are seriously weighing the value as well as drawbacks to overriding the ATF’s decision.

Here’s a list of questions and quotes shared from the oral arguments according to ABC News and other news reports:

Justice Samuel Alito: “Can you imagine a legislator thinking we should ban machine guns but we should not ban bump stocks?”

Justice Clarence Thomas: “There was significant damage from machine guns, carnage, people dying, et cetera. And behind this is a notion that the bump stock does the exact same thing… So, with that background, why shouldn’t we look at a broader definition?”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett: “Intuitively, I am entirely sympathetic to your argument… It seems like, yes, that this is functioning like a machine gun would. But, you know, looking at that definition, I think the question is, why didn’t Congress pass that legislation to make this cover it more clearly?”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh: ABC News reports Kavanaugh said the fact that administrations from both parties originally said the National Firearms Act did not apply to bump stocks “was reason for pause.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch: “(I can) certainly understand why these things should be banned.” But then he added that he was wrestling with the implications of how the rule change could negatively affect hundreds of thousands of Americans who had legally purchased the devices, many of whom probably still own them despite the ATF ordering them surrendered or destroyed. “It’s going to ensnare a lot of people who are not aware of the legal prohibition.”

Justice Elena Kagan: “Why do these various distinctions with respect to operations matter. I read this statute to be a classification statute that Congress is directing everyone or us to identify certain kinds of weapons, and those certain kinds of weapons are being treated in a particular way. They’re being prohibited… I view myself as a good textualist, but textualism is not inconsistent with common sense.”

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson: “(W)eapons with bump stocks have triggers that function in the same way (as automatic weapons) …through a single, right, pull of the trigger or touch of the trigger, you achieve the same result of automatic fire.”

Attorney Jonathan Mitchell, who is representing Michael Cargill in the case and speaking in response to Jackson’s misunderstanding of how the bump stock works: “No…The premise of Your Honor’s question is not true. A single discharge of the trigger produces only one shot.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: Questioned why anyone would need a bump stock and Mitchell replied it can help people with arthritis or other disabilities to more easily fire a rifle, Sotomayor replied, “Why would even a person with arthritis, why would Congress think they needed to shoot 400 to 800 rounds of ammunition [per minute] under any circumstance? If you don’t let a person without arthritis do that, why would you permit a person with arthritis to do it?”

Justice Elena Kagan: “The entire way the statute is written suggests that Congress was very aware that there could be small adjustments of a weapon that could get around what Congress meant to prohibit.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch: “I can certainly understand why these items should be made illegal, but we’re dealing with a statute that was enacted in the 1930s… And through many administrations, the government took the position that these bump stocks are not machine guns.”

And from attorney Mark W. Smith with the Four Boxes Diner, we have his take on the first day of oral arguments in the case.


The justices are expected to enter a final ruling in the case by the end of June.

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