Multiple U.S. Supreme Court cases that will be decided this term could completely change U.S. gun laws, including “bump stock” modifications and whether individuals accused of domestic violence violations can legally possess a firearm.
In all, the rulings could affect hundreds of thousands of lawful gun owners, felons, those under domestic violence protection orders, and the nation’s most prominent pro-Second Amendment group.
Cargill Versus Garland
Perhaps the most prominent case is Cargill v. Garland, which asks whether a bump stock device is a “machine gun” following the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) having issued a ban on the devices in the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017. Authorities alleged that the shooter, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, used the devices during the rampage.
What the ATF did was expand the definition of a “machine gun,” which is prohibited under the National Firearms Act of 1986, to include the devices that use the firearm’s recoil to allow for the repeated pulling of the trigger to increase the rate of fire. The rule had mandated that anyone in possession of one should destroy the devices or face criminal penalties, with reports indicating that more than 500,000 people owned them when the rule was implemented in 2018.
At the center of the legal battle over bump stocks is a rule from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, issued in 2018 that expanded the definition of “machine gun” prohibited under the 1986 National Firearms Act to include bump stocks. Any person found with the device would be subject to a felony.
A Texas gun shop owner, Michael Cargill, eventually filed a lawsuit against the ATF and Department of Justice, saying the rule violates his constitutional rights.
Lawyers for Mr. Cargill urged the justices to take up the challenge to the ban, saying that the definition of a machine gun under federal law is unclear and impacts hundreds of thousands of Americans. The suit contends that Americans bought 520,000 bump stocks in a nine-year span, and that the new rule forces them to surrender the devices.
“Despite ATF’s previous assurances that federal law permitted possession of a bump stock, the Final Rule now brands as criminals all those who ever possessed a bump stock,” the lawyers wrote in the petition.
The attorneys also contended that between 2008 and 2017, the ATF had “repeatedly issued classification decisions stating that non-mechanical bump stocks” are not “machine guns” under the National Firearms Act.
Lawyers for the Biden administration, however, said that the ATF rule doesn’t change the ban on machine guns and instead informs the public that it classifies bump stocks as machine guns.
“Bump stocks allow a shooter to fire hundreds of bullets a minute by a single pull of the trigger. Like other machine guns, rifles modified with bump stocks are exceedingly dangerous; Congress prohibited the possession of such weapons for good reason,” the Department of Justice wrote to the Supreme Court in a filing. “The decision below contradicts the best interpretation of the statute, creates an acknowledged circuit conflict, and threatens significant harm to public safety.”
Two U.S. appeals courts have already struck down the ATF rule this year. A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio wrote that the rule went beyond the ATF’s legal authority when it issued the ban, while the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit struck down the ban in a separate case in January 2023.
If those rulings are allowed to stand, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, arguing on behalf of the Biden administration, warned that the consequences will “reverberate nationwide,” and it “is likely to mean that manufacturers within the Fifth Circuit will be able to make and sell bump stocks to individuals without background checks and without registering or serializing the devices.”
United States Versus Rahimi
Another gun-related Supreme Court case involves a Texas man, Zackey Rahimi, an alleged marijuana dealer who was accused of assaulting his girlfriend before firing a shot with his gun after seeing a bystander witness the incident. As he fired the shot, his girlfriend escaped from the vehicle before he allegedly threatened to shoot her, according to court documents filed by the Department of Justice.
In 2020, a Texas court granted the woman a restraining order against Mr. Rahimi, which also suspended his handgun license. He was also told that if he possessed a firearm while the order was in effect, he could face felony charges, court papers show.
“Rahimi, however, defied the restraining order. In August 2020, he tried to communicate with (girlfriend) C.M. on social media and approached her house in the middle of the night, prompting state police to arrest him for violating the order,” the solicitor general wrote to the Supreme Court.
The U.S. asked the Supreme Court to hear the case after the 5th Circuit ruled in February Mr. Rahimi’s Second Amendment rights were violated under the order. The appeals court had cited the Supreme Court’s 6–3 landmark ruling in the landmark case New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which established that individuals have the constitutional right to carry a gun for self-defense outside the home.
During oral arguments last month, a number of the justices appeared skeptical of striking down the federal law about whether individuals under domestic violence orders should be able to possess a firearm. That included several Republican-appointed justices.
Two Other Cases
In another case the Supreme Court decided to take up this term, the justices will weigh on whether a New York state official stifled the ability of the National Rifle Association (NRA) to exercise free speech rights protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment by pressuring banks and insurers to avoid doing business with the group.
At issue is whether Maria Vullo, a former superintendent of New York’s Department of Financial Services, unlawfully retaliated against the NRA for its gun rights advocacy by targeting it with an “implicit censorship regime.”
Ms. Vullo in 2018 called upon banks and insurers to consider the “reputational risks” of doing business with gun rights groups following a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.
She fined Lloyd’s of London and two other insurers more than $13 million for offering an NRA-endorsed product called “Carry Guard” that Ms. Vullo’s office found was in violation of New York insurance law. The product provided liability coverage for policyholders who caused injuries from gunfire, even in cases involving the wrongful use of a firearm. The insurers agreed to stop selling NRA-endorsed products that New York considered illegal.
Last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments on what kind of offenses can trigger a mandatory 15-year prison sentence under the often-challenge Armed Career Criminal Act, a type of three-strikes law. The law imposes a mandatory minimum sentence on individuals who unlawfully possess firearms if they’ve already committed at least three violent felony offenses or drug offenses.