Rule of Law

RELEASE: Justices Engage with Text and History During Oral Argument in Bump Stock Ban Case

WASHINGTON, DC – Following oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court this morning in Garland v. Cargill, a case in which the Court is considering whether bump stocks are correctly classified as “machineguns” under the National Firearms Act, Constitutional Accountability Center Counsel Nina Henry issued the following reaction:

When Congress passed the National Firearms Act in 1934, it had one central concern: stopping the mass carnage that machine guns enable. Decades later, even as weapon technology has evolved from the “Tommy gun” of the 1930s to the bump stock of the present day, the same concern about mass violence unfortunately remains. Fortunately, the capacious language Congress used in defining machine gun in 1934, and broadened further in subsequent amendments, is broad enough to encompass weapon technology, like bump stocks, that did not exist in the 1930s.

As the government argued at the Supreme Court today, and as the text and history of the National Firearms Act makes clear, bump stocks are properly classified as machine guns because they allow a shooter to convert a semiautomatic firearm into a weapon that can produce automatic fire with a single function of the trigger.

Looking to the text of the statute, some justices rightly expressed skepticism of the Fifth Circuit’s holding that a single pull of a trigger did not constitute a single “function” of the trigger within the meaning of the statute. Justice Jackson stated that the distinction between a finger moving against a trigger or a trigger moving against a finger should not matter—ultimately, “Congress was trying to capture a class of weapons in which a trigger is used once to achieve a certain result”—a “spray of bullets.”

Words should generally be given their common-sense meaning at the time a law was passed, and dictionary definitions from the 1930s support the view that the definition of machine gun in the National Firearms Act encompasses bump stocks. As Justice Barrett observed, “intuitively,” a gun with a bump stock seems to be “functioning like a machine gun would.”

This understanding of the statute’s text is also supported by its history. Congress viewed machine guns as the “most dangerous weapon” because they could shoot continuously after a single initiating action by the shooter. The attorney for the government noted that even the President of the National Rifle Association endorsed this understanding of the definition of “machine gun.”

When Congress passed the National Firearms Act in 1934 and subsequently amended it in 1968 and 1986, it was trying to prevent precisely the sort of gamesmanship employed by bump stock manufacturers today. The Court must reject this attempt to evade the machine gun ban and the critical protections it provides the American people.



Case page in Garland v. Cargill:


Constitutional Accountability Center is a nonpartisan think tank and public interest law firm dedicated to fulfilling the progressive promise of the Constitution’s text, history, and values. Visit CAC’s website at