In 2024, the Supreme Court is set to decide three cases that could have major ramifications for how guns are regulated in the United States. These cases involve a law designed to protect domestic violence victims, a Trump-era ban on machine gun conversion devices, and the free speech rights of the gun industry.
The cases come more than a year after the six-justice conservative majority ruled that gun restrictions are only constitutional if there were similar laws in early American history. The landmark decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen has upended gun laws around the country and sowed confusion among lower courts over what restrictions can be allowed to stand.
Below, we explore the significance of each upcoming decision and its potential impact.
Domestic violence gun restrictions
- Case: United States v. Rahimi
- Status: Oral arguments heard, opinion pending
- Question: Does the federal law that prohibits the possession of firearms by people subject to domestic violence restraining orders violate the Second Amendment?
The most closely watched gun case since Bruen, Rahimi deals with a 1996 federal law that bans the possession of firearms by people subject to domestic violence restraining orders. The defendant, a Texas man who was a suspect in several shootings, was under a civil protective order for the alleged assault of his ex-girlfriend when police found guns in his home. The order expressly prohibited him from having firearms, and he was indicted for violating the federal ban.
In February 2023, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the defendant’s conviction and declared the ban unconstitutional, calling it an “outlier that our ancestors would never have accepted.”
The Department of Justice appealed to the Supreme Court. During oral arguments in November, the U.S. solicitor general argued that there was a well-established history of laws disarming people deemed by society to be dangerous.
The case is expected to test the limits of the court’s 2022 decision and potentially clarify how lower courts should apply Bruen’s history and tradition test when weighing the constitutionality of gun restrictions.
The court’s decision is expected this summer. Outside observers generally agree that the justices will uphold the law. “The issue then is, are they going to take the occasion to address the horrible mess of confusion that Bruen created in the lower courts?” said Dru Stevenson, a law professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston. “I will be surprised if they can resist.”
- Case: Garland v. Cargill
- Status: Oral arguments scheduled for February 28, 2024
- Question: Does the legal definition of “machine gun” include bump stocks, and did the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives exceed its authority in classifying them as such?
The Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting in Las Vegas in 2017 was the deadliest mass shooting in American history, perpetrated by a man who used a dozen rifles equipped with bump stocks. These aftermarket devices enable semiautomatic rifles to fire more rapidly. After the shooting, the Trump administration’s ATF effectively banned the devices by defining them as machine guns, prompting a flurry of lawsuits, including Cargill.
Unlike Rahimi, Cargill has less to do with Bruen or the Second Amendment directly and is instead focused on federal agencies’ ability to interpret federal law. “It’s not asking whether someone has a constitutional right to have a bump stock, but whether ATF acted outside of statutory authority,” said Esther Sanchez-Gomez, the litigation director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the legal arm of the gun reform group. “It’s a question of whether the ATF has the power to do this in the first place.”
There’s little indication of how the justices might rule. In recent years, the Supreme Court has been toying with limiting federal agencies’ authority to interpret federal law and Congress’s ability to delegate policymaking to agencies.
The gun industry and the First Amendment
- Case: National Rifle Association v. Vullo
- Status: Petition granted, oral arguments not yet scheduled
- Question: Does the First Amendment allow a government regulator to press banks and insurance companies to consider risks when doing business with the gun industry?
After the 2018 Parkland shooting, New York State’s Department of Financial Services Superintendent Maria Vullo warned the state’s banks and financial services providers to consider the risks associated with providing services to the firearms industry. The NRA sued, alleging that the guidance was motivated by a disapproval of pro-gun views, in violation of the First Amendment, and was an attempt at coercing the companies under NYDFS’s regulatory supervision to sever ties with the firearms industry.
While Vullo isn’t directly about firearm regulation, the Supreme Court’s decision could affect financial regulators’ ability to oversee interactions between financial institutions and the gun industry. “It is part of the overall project of the NRA to get privileged legal status for the gun industry,” Stevenson said. “Because if they win, the gun industry can do all kinds of stuff, and any type of regulation they don’t like, they’re gonna just say, ‘Well, under Vullo, you’re violating my First Amendment rights.’”
Other cases to watch
There are at least two other gun-related cases the Supreme Court has not yet accepted, but could take up this year. U.S. v. Daniels questions whether it is constitutional to prohibit someone from owning guns because they have used illegal drugs, and Garland v. Range challenges the ban on gun possession by people convicted of nonviolent offenses.
“There’s a chance that the court goes far enough in its reasoning that Rahimi disposes of these cases,” Sanchez-Gomez said.
Daniels and Range are narrower questions of whether each law is constitutional as applied individually to Patrick Darnell Daniels Jr. and Bryan David Range, respectively. If the Supreme Court rules against the laws at issue, it wouldn’t mean they are unconstitutional in all circumstances. The appellate courts ruled in favor of Daniels and Range, so if the Supreme Court decides not to take either case, those decisions will stand.
But whatever the outcome, it could still have broad implications. “It means they’ve now opened an avenue under which other people could challenge their convictions, or that the government will stop using the law in very specific situations,” Sanchez-Gomez said.