By Andrew Chung
(Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday trained its sights once again on gun rights, agreeing to decide the legality of a federal ban imposed under former President Donald Trump on "bump stock" devices that enable semiautomatic weapons to fire like machine guns.
The justices agreed to hear an appeal by President Joe Biden's administration of a lower court's ruling in favor of Michael Cargill, a gun shop owner and gun rights advocate from Austin, Texas, who challenged the ban that was put in place under Trump following a 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas.
The case centers on whether the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a U.S. Justice Department agency, properly interpreted a law banning machine guns as extending to bump stocks. The new rule, which reversed a prior stance by the agency, took effect in 2019.
Federal law prohibits the sale or possession of machine guns, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Machine guns are defined under a 1934 law called the National Firearms Act as weapons that can "automatically" fire more than one shot "by a single function of the trigger."
Bump stocks use a semiautomatic's recoil to allow it to slide back and forth while "bumping" the shooter's trigger finger, resulting in rapid fire.
The Supreme Court previously had turned away some challenges to the bump stocks prohibition.
The Supreme Court's conservative majority has expanded gun rights in three major rulings since 2008, including in 2022 when the justices recognized for the first time that individuals have a constitutional right to carry a handgun in public for self-defense, and adopted a stringent test for assessing the legality of gun regulations.
The justices next Tuesday are set to consider another gun rights case on whether to uphold a federal law that prohibits people with domestic violence restraining orders from having a firearm.
After a gunman used weapons outfitted with bump stocks in a 2017 shooting spree at a country music festival in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds more, Trump's administration took action to prohibit the devices.
Cargill sued to challenge the rule, which required him to surrender his two bump stocks.
Attorney Richard Samp of the New Civil Liberties Alliance conservative legal group, representing Cargill, praised the court's decision to hear the case.
"ATF for many years recognized that bump stocks and semi-automatic weapons are not 'machineguns.' Its sudden reversal can only be explained as a decision to allow political expediency to trump the rule of law," Samp said.
The U.S. Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In January, the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Cargill in a divided opinion, concluding that the law did not unambiguously favor ATF's reading of the statute.
That decision "threatens significant harm to public safety," the Justice Department said in a filing to the Supreme Court. "Bump stocks allow a shooter to fire hundreds of bullets a minute by a single pull of the trigger. Like other machine guns, rifles modified with bump stocks are exceedingly dangerous."
The United States is a country deeply divided over how to address persistent gun violence that Biden has called a "national embarrassment." The litigation at issue did not involve whether the ban violated the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday took up another case touching on guns. The justices agreed to decide whether a New York state official stifled the ability of the National Rifle Association to exercise free speech rights protected by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment by pressuring banks and insurers to avoid doing business with the influential gun rights group.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)