Bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic firearms to fire rapidly like machine guns, will remain banned by the federal government in most instances after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a case challenging recently imposed regulations.
At the direction of the Trump Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) in December 2018 reversed its policy and said bump stocks fell under the definition of “machinegun,” which are tightly regulated under federal law. That means that possessing bump stocks and similar devices that enhance the rate of fire of semi-automatic firearms is effectively illegal.
A coalition of gun rights groups and gun owners filed a lawsuit challenging the ban. After lower courts upheld the ban, the Supreme Court decided not to hear the case.
In a four page statement accompanying the decision not to hear the case, Justice Neil Gorsuch focused on a legal doctrine that prevents courts from overruling certain federal regulations.
“Whether bump stocks can be fairly reclassified and effectively outlawed as machineguns under existing statutory definitions, I do not know and could not say without briefing and argument,” Gorsuch wrote in his statement. “Nor do I question that Congress might seek to enact new legislation directly regulating the use and possession of bump stocks.”
While the court passed on an opportunity to weigh in on gun regulations, Eric Ruben, a law professor at Southern Methodist University, said this case did not necessarily rest on the Second Amendment.
“This is not a case that is squarely presenting the meaning of the right to keep and bear arms,” Ruben said. “What this is really about is whether or not an agency, a federal agency, is properly interpreting whether or not a bump stock is a machinegun under federal law.”
The Supreme Court ultimately decided not to intervene, leaving the ban in place.
Bump stocks gained notoriety after a gunman attached the plastic device to a semi-automatic weapon and shot and killed 58 people, and injured more than 800, in Las Vegas in October 2017.
The devices attracted the attention of the Trump Administration and at least ten states enacted state-level bump stock bans after the Las Vegas shooting.
The ban does not grandfather-in owners anyone or provide for compensation for the devices, which typically cost $150-300, but can run as high $500. That marked the new rule as a scary development for many gun owners.
Bump stocks may eventually reach the Supreme Court. Gorsuch suggested that the majority Conservative court is watching other bump stock suits currently making their way through courts of appeal.
“Waiting,” Gorsuch wrote, “should not be mistaken for lack of concern.”
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life. Guns & America’s Ryan Lindsay contributed to this story.