Public Health

Why high court should uphold ban on firearm bump stocks

Tanya Albert Henry , Contributing News Writer

What’s the news: The U.S. Supreme Court is slated to hear oral arguments Feb. 28 in a case that will determine whether bump stocks can be prohibited under a federal law that stops citizens from owning a machine gun. The law defines that term as “any weapon that shoots, is designed to shoot or can readily be restored to shoot automatically more than one shot without manual reloading, but a single function of the trigger.” 

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The Litigation Center of the American Medical Association and State Medical Societies, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, and American College of Surgeons filed a joint amicus brief urging the nation’s highest court to rule that a bump stock does fit the law’s definition and reverse a lower court decision from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans that said the device didn’t meet the criteria.

The case, Garland v. Cargill, stems from a lawsuit Texas gun shop owner Michael Cargill filed after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) published an opinion that bump stocks fit the definition of a machine gun, banning bump stocks under federal law. The ATF opinion came out in 2018, after a 2017 Las Vegas mass murder in which the shooter used bump stocks to kill 60 people attending a music festival. His shots injured almost 500 more.

A trial court agreed with ATF’s opinion that the bump stock fit the machine-gun definition, as did a three-judge panel from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the full 5th U.S. Circuit Court sided with Cargill, focusing on the mechanics of the firing process instead of the straightforward statutory language.

The full court said the device doesn’t fall under the definition because “without the use of a bump stock or the use of an alternative bump technique, the user must provide manual input by pulling the trigger with the muscles of his trigger finger. With a bump stock, the shooter need not pull and release his trigger finger. But the shooter must still apply forward pressure to the weapon’s forebody to maintain the shooting mechanism.”

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to uphold that interpretation.

Why it’s important: Gun violence is a public health crisis and bump stocks are contributing to that public health issue.

“The sole purpose of a bump stock is to modify a semi-automatic weapon to cause automatic fire. Just one movement from the shooter’s finger sets off a chain reaction in which the bump stock harnesses and directs the firearm’s recoil energy. The firearm shifts back and form, ‘bumping’ the shooter’s stationary trigger finger each time, and firing automatically without additional pulls of the trigger,” notes the brief from the AMA Litigation Center and others.

Prohibiting bump stocks would “directly affect whether countless people will live or die. The stakes could hardly be higher,” the brief says.

To underscore the point of how damaging gun violence is to the public’s health, the brief includes accounts from more than a dozen physicians from around the country who describe the carnage they witness firsthand from gun violence and the long-term consequences they see in individual patients, families and communities. The physicians—many who grew up with guns or are gun owners—understand the importance of protecting constitutional rights. However, their health care work and research tell them that bump stocks “have no place in a civilized society.”

“Their rapid-fire bullets cause enormous human carnage, destruction and chaos. They result in death on a large scale and cause gruesome injuries. Everyone is affected. Anyone can be a victim. The bullets do not discriminate,” the brief says.

Learn more: Learn how the AMA advocates to prevent gun violence and to increase gun safety.

Find out more about the cases in which the AMA Litigation Center is providing assistance and learn about the Litigation Center’s case-selection criteria.

Explore the other gun-violence cases the AMA Litigation Center has filed amicus briefs in, including domestic violence abusers having access to guns and the constitutionality of a state law requiring information about safe gun storage be issued to firearms buyers.