The Supreme Court on Whether ATF Can Decide That Bump Stocks are Machine Guns

United States Supreme Court courtroom SCOTUS
Courtesy Library of Congress

The bump stock, a simple device once considered a novelty for many shooters, was the focus of ninety minutes of occasionally spirited arguments Wednesday in the United States Supreme Court. 

Garland v. Cargill, hinges on a single question . . .

Whether a bump stock device is a ‘machine gun’ as defined in 26 U.S.C. 584(b) because it is designed and intended for use in converting a rifle into a machine-gun, I.e., into a weapon that ‘fires automatically more than one shot’ ***by a single function of the trigger.

For years, bump stocks were legal. Most “serious” shooters considered them toys, not tools. Then a psycho used bump stock-equipped rifles to kill 60 and wound almost 500 more at a Las Vegas concert. 

In response, the Trump administration, with the support of the NRA, ordered the ATF to do something about bump stocks. The ATF complied, changing its longstanding administrative interpretation to say bump stocks had, by fiat, become machine guns.

On March 26, 2019, after a grace period to allow the hundreds of thousands of bump stock owners to surrender or destroy their copies, the new administrative ruling classifying them as machine guns went into effect.

Rather than become an instant felon Michael Cargill, owner of Central Texas Gun Works in Austin, surrendered his store’s inventory of bump stocks along with two others he’d bought in April of 2018. 

Cargill said when he bought his, he relied on ATF’s longstanding ruling that bump stocks were legal to own and use. So he, along with the New Civil Liberties Alliance, filed suit in the Fifth Federal District Court challenging ATF’s reclassification of bump stocks and seeking the return of his inventory and property.

Their case argued that federal law clearly defines a “machine gun” a shooting multiple bullets “automatically” and “by a single function of the trigger” (emphasis added).

Bump stocks, they argue, don’t modify a trigger or remove the need for the trigger to function for every round fired. Bump stocks only enable experienced users to pull triggers more efficiently.

In fact, they argued, bump stocks introduced a secondary action, requiring shooters maintain constant forward force on the front of the bump stock-equipped rifle. Without the forward pressure in the off hand, a semi-automatic rifle — even with a bump stock installed — is only capable of firing a single round with a single trigger pull.

Consequently, they argued, the court should rule against ATF’s reclassification. Using the law as written by Congress, the Fifth Circuit agreed. 

They also noted the law was “unclear” and that lack of clarity invoked the rule of lenity, a legal doctrine that requires courts to interpret “ambiguous” criminal laws “in the way most favorable to defendants.”

The Sixth Circuit heard a separate challenge. Because the law failed to “clearly and unambiguously prohibit bump stocks” the Sixth Circuit also agreed the rule of lenity applied, finding it was “bound to construe the statute” in the defendant’s favor. 

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia disagreed. It upheld the ATF’s reclassification, finding a bump stock to be “a self-regulating mechanism that allows the shooter to shoot more than one shot through a single pull of the trigger.” Bump stocks are, they found, “machine guns.”

The Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to review the rulings by the 5th and 6th Circuits striking down the rule. Bump stock owners in the D.C. Circuit also wanted review of that court’s ruling against them. 

The Supreme Court exists to clarify and interpret differing opinions between Circuit Courts.

Based on the arguments yesterday, there will be neither a rapid nor a unanimous interpretation. The justices were divided on the definition of a machine gun and applicability of the law, as written, to bump stocks. 

There was also concern regarding ATF’s change of its prior rulings. Allowing that change, Justice Kavanaugh said, would “ensnare a lot of people who are not aware of the legal prohibition.”

Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch indicated they might be sympathetic to the ban, but expressed overarching concerns regarding ATF’s unilateral administrative reinterpretation of the law rather than Congress re-writing and clarifying the law.

“I’m sympathetic to your argument,” Justice Barrett said, then asked government attorney Brian Fletcher why Congress didn’t see fit to pass legislation “to make this covered more clearly.”

The specific argument hinges on an interpretation of a law written in 1938 for the answer to a very specific contemporary question: does a bump stock constitute a machine gun? 

Slide Fire bump stock
Dan Z. for SNW

The law, as written, says a machine gun is a weapon that “fires automatically more than one shot by a single function of the trigger.”

To uphold the ATF’s change, a majority of the justices must agree that “function of the trigger” must be expandable to cover the entirety of the firing process. Justice Jackson went so far as to describe it as “the chemical process that ultimately expels a projectile.”

Cargill and the NCLA argue a bump stock doesn’t fit the statutory definition of a machine gun…a weapon that “fires automatically more than one shot by a single function of the trigger.” Without that secondary act of a shooter exerting pressure on the forward portion of the rifle, they argue, a bump stock-equipped rifle will fire only a single shot.

The semi-automatic trigger, unmodified on a bump stock-equipped rifle, won’t magically change a semi-automatic rifle into a machine gun. It only helps shooters perform the one-pull/one round act more quickly. The administration disagrees, saying the “function” of the trigger should include the entire act of firing the rifle.

That’s the essence of the argument.

If the high court decide bump stocks, as defined by the statute, are not machine guns, that ruling has the potential to limit the federal government’s ability to interpret — or re-interpret — other ambiguous laws as well. 

If they decide in favor of ATF’s unilateral reinterpretation, they risk creating “instant felons” across the country. Either way, the stakes are high. 

We’ll keep you posted.

5 Responses

  1. Justice Jackson went so far as to describe it as “the chemical process that ultimately expels a projectile.”

    She’s not a biologist, but she’s a chemist?

  2. Hearing the so-called ‘Wise Latina’ say that she considers herself a good ‘textulist’ (sp?) when it comes to reading the amendment was both amusing and depressing to me, considering the problem she has in understanding “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed” seems completely beyond her intellectual capacity…

  3. I hope we get out of this that the BATF cannot create criminal law by decree, that’s what I want, and *hopefully*, a cancellation of every ‘decree’ since 1928 or whenever…

  4. You stated that a bumpstock was used in the Vegas killings. As far as I know, there has been no evidence to suggest any of the bullets were fired from one of the bumpstock equipped guns. There is evidence to support that one or more guns in the room had a bumpstock installed, but no evidence I am aware of that any of those guns were used

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