SCOTUS Oral Arguments on Bump Stock Ban Hinges on 'Function' of Trigger

AP Photo/Allen G. Breed, File

It's never a good idea to guess the outcome of a Supreme Court decision based solely on the questions posed during oral arguments, and Garland v. Cargill is no exception. Several justices appeared skeptical that the ATF had the authority to declare bump stocks "machine guns" through a new interpretation of existing rules during oral arguments on Wednesday morning, peppering the Justice Department and attorneys for Texas gun store owner Michael Cargill with questions about how to define the "single function" of a trigger. 


As expected, the liberal wing of the Court appeared to side with the government's contention that the "function" of a trigger encompasses manual action by the user of a rifle equipped with a bump stock, but even Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Alito wondered had tough questions for Cargill's attorneys about why Congress would have placed machine guns under the auspices of the National Firearms Act while allowing for devices that could increase the rate of fire. 

Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch, meanwhile, expressed sympathy with the idea of banning bump stocks, but questioned whether the ATF had the authority to ban bump stocks through a new interpretation instead of relying on Congress to impose a ban. Gorsuch noted that maybe Congress could have been more clear back in the 1930s, but said that the words of the statute have meaning. He asked the goverment't attorney if people "function" triggers, which is the lynchpin of the DOJ's defense of the bump stock ban. As Gorsuch noted, people pull things, they may throw things, but they don’t function things. 

For much of the nearly two hours of oral arguments, the two sides focused on very different readings of the federal statute defining "machine guns", which states that a gun that can fire multiple rounds through a single function of a trigger, with several of the justices repeatedly stating that rifles equipped with bump stocks fire "automatically". That assertion received pushback from Cargill's attorneys, who noted time and again that the non-mechanical bump stock doesn't change anything about how the trigger functions, even if it allows for an accelerated rate of fire. 


Cargill's attorney did a good job of countering the government's argument, pointing out that without manual action on the part of the user a rifle equipped with a bump stock will not fire any faster than a semi-automatic rifle with a factory stock. I just don't think it matters to the liberal wing of the Court, who seemed focused on the increased rate of fire that was possible with a bump stock despite the fact that even the DOJ said this case was not about firing rates. 

I'm loathe to make a prediction about what the Court will decide in Garland v. Cargill, but Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Coney Barrett seemed to have a decent understanding of Cargill's argument. Chief Justice Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh could very well be the deciding votes on upholding or tossing out the ban, but I didn't get a sense of how either of them might come down based on the questions they posed. Kavanaugh grilled both sides, while Roberts was mostly quiet during the oral arguments, though he did ask a pertinent question about the work that a shooter's off-hand does in order to make the bump stock function as intended. 

If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say we're probably looking at a 5-4 decision, but I honestly can't tell who will be in the majority. Cargill's attorneys had the better argument, but the government's emotional appeal about not letting guns that can spray a "torrent" of bullets (to use Justice Jackson's phrasing) be possessed by millions of Americans could carry the day. Let's hope not, because if the ATF's bump stock ban is upheld, the Biden administration is going to take that as a greenlight to use the ATF to enact even more restrictions on our Second Amendment rights while bypassing Congress entirely. 


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