Justices take up bump stock dispute



The justices added three cases to their 2023-24 docket on Friday. (Timothy Neesam via Flickr)

Less than a week before the justices are scheduled to hear argument in a high-profile gun-rights case, the court added another dispute involving firearms to its docket for the 2023-24 term. In Garland v. Cargill, the justices will decide whether a “bump stock” – an attachment that transforms a semiautomatic rifle into a fully automatic, assault-style weapon – is a “machinegun,” which is generally prohibited under federal law. The case was one of three new cases in which the justices granted review in a list of orders released on Friday afternoon.

The case is a challenge to a regulation issued in the wake of the 2017 mass shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas. The gunman there used semi-automatic rifles equipped with bump-stock devices to kill 60 people and wound 500 more. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives issued a rule concluding that bump stocks are machineguns – a reversal from its earlier position that only certain types of bump stocks are machine guns. The rule directed anyone who owned or possessed a bump stock to destroy them or drop them at a nearby ATF office to avoid facing criminal penalties.

Two federal courts of appeals struck down the regulation. Under federal law, a machinegun is a gun that shoots multiple bullets “automatically” and “by a single function of the trigger,” or any accessory that allows a gun to do so. This definition, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled, clearly does not apply to bump stocks, which harness a rifle’s recoil to rapidly depress the trigger without the shooter having to pull and release his trigger finger. But even if the definition were not clear, the 5th Circuit continued, bump stocks should be excluded from the definition of “machinegun” under the rule of lenity, a doctrine that instructs courts to apply ambiguous criminal laws in the way that is most favorable to defendants.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reached the same conclusion in a separate challenge to the regulation. The 6th Circuit ruled that the regulation is ambiguous. And because federal firearms laws do not “clearly and unambiguously prohibit bump stocks,” the 6th Circuit concluded, the rule of lenity applies and it was “bound to construe the statute in” the defendant’s favor.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit disagreed and upheld the regulation. It concluded that “under the best interpretation of the statute, a bump stock is a self-regulating mechanism that allows the shooter to shoot more than one shot through a single pull of the trigger” and is therefore a “machinegun.”

The Biden administration came to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to review the rulings by the 5th and 6th Circuits against it; the bump-stock owners who lost in the D.C. Circuit also sought review of that ruling.

In National Rifle Association v. Vullo, the court will weigh in on a dispute that arose after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 students and staff. Maria Vullo, then the head of New York’s Department of Financial Services, urged banks and insurance companies that did business in New York to consider the “reputational risks” from doing business with gun-rights groups like the NRA, and she encouraged them to cut their ties with the group.

The NRA went to federal court, where it argued (among other things) that Vullo had violated its rights to freedom of speech by threatening the banks and insurance companies that had worked with the NRA so that they would break off their relationship with the group.

A federal appeals court rejected that argument. It concluded that the NRA had not sufficiently alleged that “Vullo ‘crossed the line “between attempts to convince and attempts to coerce.’” But even if it had, the court of appeals continued, the NRA’s lawsuit could not go forward because it was not clearly established that her conduct was unconstitutional, and so she was entitled to qualified immunity. The NRA went to the Supreme Court, which considered the case at five consecutive conferences before granting review on Friday.

The justices also agreed to take up Coinbase v. Suski, an arbitration case that is a sequel to last term’s Coinbase v. Bielski, in which the justices ruled that federal courts must put trial proceedings on hold to allow a party seeking arbitration to appeal the denial of a motion to compel arbitration. In Suski, the justices will review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit holding that when an arbitration agreement tasks the arbitrator with deciding whether a dispute should be arbitrated, courts should decide whether the arbitration agreement is narrowed by a later contract that does not address arbitration. Other courts of appeals have ruled that the arbitrator, rather than a court, should instead determine the effect of the second agreement.

More orders from the justices’ private conference on Friday are expected on Monday at 9:30 a.m.

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court.


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