People For the American Way Foundation

Two Gun Violence Cases Before the Supreme Court

News and Analysis
Two Gun Violence Cases Before the Supreme Court

This term, the Supreme Court is considering two challenges to laws seeking to stem gun violence. United States v. Rahimi will affect whether we can keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. And Garland v. Cargill will determine if the federal ban on machine guns includes firearms that are built differently but are just as lethal.

Keeping Guns Away from Domestic Abusers

What is the Rahimi case about?

The Supreme Court will address whether people subject to a domestic violence restraining order have a constitutional right to firearms.

The case springs from the conservative majority’s dangerous decision in 2022’s New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. In that case, the Court severely weakened the ability of states and cities to set reasonable restrictions on firearms. The majority created a new type of analysis for all firearms safety laws. Before, judges had balanced the individual’s right to own and carry firearms with the urgent need to prevent gun violence. But under Bruen, judges can no longer consider public safety interests. Instead, they can only uphold a firearms regulation if a comparable law existed at the time the Second or Fourteenth Amendments were adopted.

After Bruen, gun safety laws that had been upheld in the past are now subject to attack. That’s what happened in this case.

What protections are opponents of gun safety measures challenging?

Under the federal Violence Against Women Act, it is illegal for someone subject to a domestic violence restraining order to possess a firearm or ammunition. Zackey Rahimi was subject to a restraining order in 2019, after he assaulted and threatened his girlfriend. In 2020 and 2021, he was involved in five different shootings. When police searched his home, they found firearms. He was convicted for possessing them while subject to a domestic violence restraining order.

Rahimi claimed this violated his Second Amendment rights. Even the extremely conservative Fifth Circuit rejected that claim. But that was before Bruen. Afterward, the court reconsidered Rahimi’s case under the new Bruen standard and ruled in his favor. The Fifth Circuit judges determined that at the time the Second Amendment was adopted, there was no historical analog to the federal law at issue here. Therefore, they concluded, the law is unconstitutional.

What happened during oral arguments?

Representing the Biden administration, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar defended the law’s constitutionality. She used the “history and tradition” standards required by Bruen. She cited the Court’s own precedents recognizing that Congress can disarm people who are not “law-abiding, responsible” citizens, which she equated to being “dangerous.” She also cited historical examples to show that people in the Founders’ era did not believe that violent individuals had the right to bear arms.

Many observers agreed that a majority of justices appeared likely to uphold the law. Most justices seemed to agree that the government can disarm dangerous people, and that domestic abusers are dangerous.

Justice Jackson used the opportunity to point out some of the logical flaws and inconsistencies in the conservatives’ “history and tradition” standard. For instance, she noted the historical tradition of preventing enslaved people and Native Americans from being armed, a tradition we would not want to base modern constitutional interpretation on. She also asked what happens if the justices conclude that the founding generation did not consider domestic abusers a danger to society. In response, Solicitor General Prelogar urged the Court not to be bound by what legislatures considered “dangerous” in the 1700s.

Who could be affected by a bad decision in this case?

If the Supreme Court upholds the Fifth Circuit’s decision, it would endanger us all. It would especially impact people who have been terrorized by spouses and domestic partners. People who assault or threaten vulnerable members of their families would have a constitutional right to guns, adding to the deadly threat that those family members already live with. In addition, such an extension of Bruen would send a signal to lower court judges to interpret it broadly and make it even harder to uphold reasonable gun safety protections.

Banning guns that are like machine guns

What is the Cargill case about?

Garland v. Cargill is about how to interpret a gun safety statute: the federal ban on possessing machine guns. It does not involve the Second Amendment. The Court will decide if the federal ban on machine guns includes a gun that works differently mechanically but still shoots hundreds of rounds in a minute just like a machine gun.

Are machine guns banned?

Yes, machine guns have long been banned by a federal law called the National Firearms Act.

What is a “bump stock?”

This is a 21st-century technology that lets someone alter a semi-automatic rifle into one that can shoot hundreds of rounds per minute with just one pull of the trigger. That makes it as lethal as a machine gun, even though its mechanism is different.

With a machine gun, the repeated fire is caused by a back-and-forth movement of the gun’s internal parts. With a bump stock, the repeated fire is caused by the back-and-forth movement of the entire forward portion of the modified gun after the shooter first presses the trigger. The recoil bumps the trigger against the shooter’s finger, causing another shot, which causes another recoil, which causes another shot, and so on. Importantly for this case, the user actively presses the trigger only one time, while all the subsequent presses are passive.

If it acts like a machine gun and kills like a machine gun, how could it not already be banned?

The National Firearms Act defines a machine gun as a weapon that automatically shoots multiple shots “by a single function of the trigger.” In the early 2000s, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) stated that this definition did not fit how bump stocks work. That is because they function by causing the trigger to be pressed repeatedly, not once.

But the ATF changed its position after a 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas in which the killer used a bump stock to kill dozens of people and injure hundreds more within minutes. It reasoned that since the shooter only needs to press the trigger one time to set off the repeated firing, that is “a single function of the trigger.” That means the device is a banned machine gun that is illegal to possess or sell, and ATF gave owners and sellers an opportunity to turn in their bump stocks.

Michael Cargill, a gun dealer in Texas, turned his bump stocks in to the federal government. He then sued, claiming that the National Firearms Act’s definition of a machine gun excludes bump stocks. A majority of the extremely conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with him.

What happened during oral arguments?

Justices appeared divided during oral arguments. The three progressive justices seemed to agree with the administration that bump stocks are machine guns. But some of the conservative justices seemed to push back against interpreting the statute that way. Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett suggested that it was up to Congress to pass a law specifically addressing bump stocks.

Justice Kagan argued that even a so-called textualist should realize that Congress meant to ban guns like this:

At some point, you have to apply a little bit of common sense to the way you read a statute and understand that what this statute comprehends is a weapon that fires a multitude of shots with a single human action.

What can we do if the Court makes bump stocks legal?

This case is based on how to interpret a statute. If the majority rules that bump stocks are legal, we can petition Congress to update the National Firearms Act to specifically cover bump stocks.

Conclusion

Decisions in both these cases are expected by late June or early July, when the Court’s current term ends.

Tags:

gun violence, Second Amendment, Supreme Court