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HomeNewsSupreme Court To Decide on Whether to Let Civilians Own Automatic Weapons

Supreme Court To Decide on Whether to Let Civilians Own Automatic Weapons

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Source: The New York Times

On February 28, the US Supreme Court is set to deliberate a case pivotal to the legality of civilian ownership of automatic weapons capable of firing nine bullets every second. The case, titled Garland v. Cargill, centers on bump stocks—attachments that exploit a firearm’s recoil to discharge rounds continuously.

These devices enable a semiautomatic gun’s trigger to reciprocate against the shooter’s finger, causing the weapon to fire as if fully automatic. A semiautomatic firearm loads a bullet after discharge but necessitates a subsequent trigger pull for each shot, unlike an automatic gun, which fires continuously upon trigger actuation.

The Trump administration prohibited bump stocks in 2018 following a mass shooting in Las Vegas involving a gunman utilizing this device. While federal law criminalizes ownership of “machine guns,” ambiguity persists over whether it encompasses bump stocks.

Traditionally, judicial deference to executive agency interpretations guides such legal ambiguities, as seen in the Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council (1984) precedent. However, the Supreme Court’s potential repudiation of Chevron portends a shift in authority from the executive to the judiciary, potentially shaping the fate of bump stock regulation.

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The crux of Garland v. Cargill hinges on the definition of a machine gun. The plaintiff contends that bump stocks do not fit this definition and argues that their operation requires continuous pressure on the gun. However, this assertion risks nullifying many traditional automatic weapons classifications as machine guns.

Alternatively, the plaintiff contends that a machine gun must engage in automatic fire “by a single function of the trigger.” This interpretation, embraced by some courts, deems bump stock-equipped firearms as machine guns since they discharge multiple rounds with a single trigger pull.

“In construing a statute, penal as well as others,” the Court explained in The Emily, “we must look to the object in view, and never adopt an interpretation that will defeat its own purpose if it will admit of any other reasonable construction.” Thus, if a law can reasonably be read in more than one way, a court should avoid reading it in a way that renders the law ineffective.

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Opponents of the bump stock ban invoke the rule of lenity, favoring defendants when statutes are unclear. Conversely, the presumption against ineffectiveness argues for maintaining the ban to prevent circumvention of the law.

Recent judicial trends suggest a predisposition towards upholding laws’ effectiveness, exemplified by the Supreme Court’s August 2023 decision to block unregulated sales of dismantled firearms, colloquially known as “ghost guns.”

Ultimately, a genuinely ambiguous legal provision will shape the outcome of the bump stocks case. In the absence of Chevron, the decision rests on the justices’ collective preference, spotlighting the enduring influence of the judiciary in shaping national policy.

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ALSO READ: Michigan Changes Its Gun Laws a Year After MSU Mass Shooting

In any event, a majority of the justices decided, in Garland v. VanDerStok, to block a lower court decision that would have allowed these ghost guns to be sold without background checks or serial numbers. VanDerStok was a 5-4 decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett crossing over to vote with the Court’sCourt’sDemocratic appointees.

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