The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear two major cases related to guns, indicating the conservative majority’s intent to continue expanding gun rights.
Bump Stocks Ban Challenged
The first case centers on “bump stocks,” devices that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire rapidly like machine guns. In 2019, the Trump administration banned bump stocks through a new rule from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
The Supreme Court will decide if the ATF had the authority to interpret existing law banning machine guns as also prohibiting bump stocks. The ban was enacted after a 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas where the gunman used rifles outfitted with bump stocks to kill 58 people and injure hundreds at a music festival.
Plaintiff Michael Cargill, an Austin, Texas gun shop owner, argues the ATF improperly reversed its long-held position that bump stocks were legal. A divided 5th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, saying the law was ambiguous on whether it covered bump stocks.
The Justice Department contends the ban is legal and necessary for public safety, arguing that bump stocks allow hundreds of bullets to be fired per minute, making rifles as dangerous as banned machine guns. They maintain the ATF was rightfully filling a regulatory gap highlighted by the Las Vegas tragedy.
The Supreme Court had previously declined to halt enforcement of the nationwide bump stock ban. However, the justices will now directly tackle the legality of the prohibition. Their decision could impact tens of thousands of Americans who surrendered bump stocks when the ban took effect.
NRA Case Tests First Amendment Rights
In a second significant action on guns, the Supreme Court also agreed to hear a First Amendment case involving the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA alleges that a New York state official infringed its free speech by urging banks and insurers to cease doing business with the group.
New York’s superintendent of financial services, Maria Vullo, is accused of threatening companies to “refrain from entering into any new ‘excess line’ insurance agreements with the NRA.” This refered to insurance policies not typically offered in the state, which the NRA purchased to cover activities like gun shows and classes.
According to the NRA’s petition, Vullo imposed a “blacklisting campaign” that deprived them of basic bank depository services and insurance coverage options. They say her actions were based on hostility to the NRA’s constitutionally protected gun advocacy.
Lower courts dismissed the lawsuit, saying Vullo’s actions were just exhortations that companies were free to ignore. However, the NRA contends the communications carried implicit threats of retribution. They argue Vullo violated the group’s free speech rights through “implied threats to insurers and financial institutions.”
The Supreme Court will have the final say on whether Vullo’s campaign against the NRA deserved First Amendment scrutiny. Their decision could have broad implications for the legal line between government persuasion versus coercion of private firms.
Continued Expansion of Gun Rights Expected
Both cases fall in line with the Supreme Court’s recent propensity to bolster gun rights. The conservative majority seems intent on elevating Second Amendment protection, prompting speculation that the right to bear arms could join religious freedom and free speech in receiving heightened constitutional safeguarding.
In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to handgun possession in the home for self-defense. This rejected long-held assumptions that the right only applied to state militias.
The court built on that decision in subsequent years. In 2010, they extended Second Amendment rights to all states and localities. In 2022, they went further by finding individuals have a right to carry concealed handguns in public.
The 6-3 conservative supermajority has proven to be very skepticical of gun regulations. Justice Clarence Thomas espouses a particularly robust view of Second Amendment freedoms. The NRA-related First Amendment case gives the court another angle to bolster gun rights.
Gun safety advocates are increasingly concerned this court could one day mandate strict legal scrutiny for all gun laws, threatening many state and local regulations. The current cases will offer insight into how far the justices are willing to go in constraining gun legislation in the name of protecting firearms access and use.
Deep Divide Remains Over Guns
Meanwhile, the U.S. remains bitterly conflicted in the debate over how to address endemic gun violence and mass shootings. Efforts at meaningful national gun law reform have long stalled in the face of staunch Republican resistance.
With over 393 million guns already in circulation, the Supreme Court’s efforts to expand gun freedoms present a frustrating contradiction for gun control activists. They continue urging policy action to reduce firearm deaths, while contending with a court that seems intent on rejecting controls in the name of individual liberty.
These cases will be closely watched by partisans on both sides of the volatile issue. Their resolution by the conservative justices may either validate or frustrate those advocating for more regulation of bump stocks, assault-style weapons, and other firearms accessories and capabilities.