‘Not The Way It Works’: Attorney Opposing Bump Stock Ban Repeatedly Explains To Liberal Justices How Guns Work

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The attorney opposing a Trump-era ban on bump stocks repeatedly corrected the Supreme Court’s liberal justices on the operation of semi-automatic firearms during oral arguments Wednesday.

The liberal justices frequently pointed to the fact that a bump stock allows a semi-automatic to fire at the same speed as a machine gun, making it “functionally” like an automatic weapon. Jonathan Mitchell, the attorney representing the U.S. Army veteran who challenged the ban, Michael Cargill, said the speed is not what matters; it is the operation of the trigger itself.

“It’s factually incorrect to say that a function of the trigger automatically starts some chain reaction that propels multiple bullets from the gun,” Mitchell told Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. “A function of the trigger fires one shot, then the shooter must take additional manual action.”

The case, Garland v. Cargill, challenges the bump stock ban enacted by the Trump administration following the 2017 Las Vegas concert mass shooting, which was implemented by interpreting the definition of “machine gun” in the federal law restricting the transfer or possession of machine guns to encompass bump stocks. Mitchell argued that the government’s interpretation fails on two counts: a bump stock does not make a gun automatic, and it does not change the trigger mechanism to allow more than one shot per function.

The National Firearms Act defines a “machine gun” as a weapon that automatically shoots more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger.” Bump stock devices enable semi-automatic rifles to fire quickly by using the weapon’s recoil to help “bump” the trigger against the finger.

Justice Elena Kagan argued that the law was intending to restrict “anything that takes just a little human action to produce more than one shot.”

“That’s just not the way they wrote the statute,” Mitchell replied. With a bump stock, he explained that the trigger still needs to reset every shot, and there is only one shot fired for each function of the trigger.

“I view myself as a good textualist,” Kagan said. “But textualism is not inconsistent with common sense. A weapon that fires a multitude of shots with a single human action, whether it’s a continuous pressure on a conventional machine gun, holding the trigger, or a continuous pressure on one of these devices on the barrel — I can’t understand how anybody could think those two things should be treated differently.”

In response to a question from Justice Samuel Alito, Mitchell noted Congress could have had policy reasons for excluding bump stocks from the definition of machine gun, such as the way it can help people with disabilities like arthritis.

“Even a person with arthritis, why would Congress think they needed to shoot 400 to 700 or 800 rounds of ammunition under any circumstance?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked. (RELATED: MARK CHENOWETH: Will SCOTUS Finally Send ATF’s Bump Stock Ban Back To Congress?)

Several of the conservative justices expressed some level of skepticism of the government’s argument.

“Intuitively, I’m entirely sympathetic to your argument. It seems like, yes, this is functioning like a machine gun would,” Justice Amy Coney Barret told U.S. Principal Deputy Solicitor General Brian Fletcher. “But looking at that definition, I think the question is, why didn’t Congress pass that legislation to make this covered more clearly?”

Justice Neil Gorsuch worried that the reinterpretation of the definition — which occurred after both Democratic and Republican prior administrations declined to include bump stocks in the definition of machine guns — suddenly rendered up to half a million Americans federal felons. Justice Brett Kavanaugh expressed concern that the rule would “ensnare” people who were unaware of the change.

At one point, Gorsuch appeared incredulous that people would “sit down and read the federal register.”

“That’s what they do in their evening for fun,” he joked. “Gun owners crack it open next to the fire and the dog.”

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