The Supreme Court on Friday overturned a ban on bump stocks, further complicating efforts to limit access to some of the deadliest types of guns in the absence of congressional action.

The justices ruled 6-3 that the Trump administration erred when it used an old law banning the sale of machine guns to justify a new ban on bump stocks in the aftermath of a 2017 mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert.

“This case asks whether a bump stock — an accessory for a semiautomatic rifle that allows the shooter to rapidly reengage the trigger (and therefore achieve a high rate of fire) — converts the rifle into a ‘machinegun.’ We hold that it does not,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas in the majority opinion, which was joined by all five of the court’s other more conservative justices.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent, which was joined by her two fellow liberal justices.

“Today, the Court puts bump stocks back in civilian hands. To do so, it casts aside Congress’s definition of ‘machinegun’ and seizes upon one that is inconsistent with the ordinary meaning of the statutory text and unsupported by context or purpose. When I see a bird that walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck,” she wrote.

Friday’s ruling will make it harder to create new gun restrictions through administrative action, since the Supreme Court has made it clear once again that old policies can’t be easily applied to modern gun debates.

The decision is similar to a ruling from 2022, in which the court said that new gun laws must be analogous to old gun laws in order to satisfy the Second Amendment.

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Background of bump stock case

This year’s Supreme Court case centered on a federal rule put in place after the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas.

The shooter, who killed nearly 60 people, including two Utahns, and injured hundreds more, used semiautomatic weapons that had been modified with bump stocks. The change made it possible for the semiautomatic guns to operate more like automatic guns and fire more rounds more quickly.

After the Las Vegas music festival shooting, lawmakers across the country expressed support for limiting access to bump stocks, as the Deseret News reported at the time.

The Trump administration ultimately enacted the ban through the federal rulemaking process, basing the new rule on a 1986 law prohibiting the purchase or sale of a machine gun.

Administration officials argued that a semiautomatic weapon that’s been modified with a bump stock amounts to a machine gun because it could fire dozens of rounds with little additional effort from the shooter, as the Deseret News previously reported.

Rev. Jason Adams sits with his son Isaac at the Reformation Lutheran Church in Las Vegas praying and singing as they react to the mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nev., on Monday, Oct. 2, 2017. | Scott G Winterton

Michael Cargill, a U.S. Army veteran who owns a gun store in Austin, took issue with that interpretation of bump stocks and filed the lawsuit that eventually made it to the Supreme Court.

He and his attorneys argued that a gun modified with a bump stock should not be seen as a machine gun in the eyes of the law.

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What the Supreme Court said about bump stocks

During oral arguments, even some of the more conservative justices seemed to express support for the bump stock ban.

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Justice Samuel Alito, for example, implied that lawmakers likely would have included bump stocks in their machine gun ban if they’d been around at the time, as the Deseret News previously reported.

But for Alito and the other more conservative justices, the case seemed to rest not on hypotheticals but on what the machine gun law actually said, as well as on what Congress has said about guns in recent years.

The majority opinion noted that, in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, Congress weighed several measures related to bump stocks and failed to pass a single one.

It’s not the Supreme Court’s job to rewrite old laws to fit modern debates, the justices in the majority said.

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