Federal Ban On Bump Stocks Put On Hold

March 26, 2021

By Anand Vasu

The U.S. Supreme Court, on Thursday, March 25, declined to block an initiative banning bump stocks, the modification that allows semi-automatic rifles to fire bullets at nearly the same frequency as fully automatic rifles or machine guns.

Delivered in a one-sentence order, the court’s action means that the regulation will remain in force while challenges to it move forward in the courts. There were no noted dissents.

The bump stock is one in which the standard stock, the part of the rifle which rests against the shoulder, is replaced by one that allows the user to harness the kickback of the rifle to keep firing, while maintaining pressure on the trigger.

With the bump stock, the butt of the rifle recoils onto the shoulder and if the finger was kept pressed on the trigger, the kickback action that results from firing the first bullet results in a back and forth motion. The name is derived from the fact that the stock bumps against the shoulder and returns to its original position.

The Trump administration had sought to restrict the use of the bump stock after it was found that 12 of the rifles used by the Las Vegas gunman in the 2017 massacre of concert-goers that led to 58 deaths were of the bump stock kind. (You can read more on our analysis of the Las Vegas shooting, mass casualty incidents and their investigations, here).

In the aftermath of that incident, the National Rifle Association said it would support tighter restrictions on similarly modified devices. However, the March 24 Supreme Court ruling ensured that the bump stock would continue to be a legal firearm.

It is illegal for private citizens to own a fully automatic firearm that was produced after May 19, 1986, and any fully automatic weapons of an earlier vintage required the owner to possess a federal license.

“The classification of these devices depends on whether they mechanically alter the function of the firearm to fire fully automatic,” Jill Snyder, a special agent in charge at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was quoted as saying by the New York Times. “Bump-fire stocks, while simulating automatic fire, do not actually alter the firearm to fire automatically, making them legal under current federal law.”

In 2019, a regulation came into effect, giving owners 90 days to dispose off or destroy any bump stock weapons they possessed, or hand them over to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The agency provided detailed instructions on how to dispose of such weapons, with “crushing, melting or shredding,” being the recommended ways of doing so.

At the time, Michael E Hammond, a lawyer with the Gun Owners of America, recommended that all owners followed the regulation but warned that it would be hard to enforce, given that there were likely in excess of 500,000 people who owned bump stocks, and they were unlikely to turn these weapons in.

While the Justice Department initially believed it did not have the authority to ban bump stocks without Congressional intervention, it went ahead with the ban. This was subsequently challenged in a federal trial court in Michigan. 

Gun owners contended that federal law did not provide for the executive branch’s restrictive action, adding that the regulation would mean that weapons worth $100 million would have to be destroyed in the process.