In Cargill, SCOTUS Ruled that Words Mean Things and Congress Writes the Laws

Slide Fire bump stock
Dan Z. for SNW

By Shelby Baird Smith

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court took a major step in reining in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) administrative overreach. The Court held in Garland v. Cargill that the agency exceeded its statutory authority by classifying semiautomatic rifles equipped with bump stocks as “machineguns” under the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA).

The NFA defines a “machinegun” as “any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.” For many years, the ATF took the consistent position – over several administrations – that semiautomatic rifles equipped with bump stocks did not meet this definition.

However, the agency did an about-face in the wake of the tragic murders in 2017 in Las Vegas in which bump stocks were used by the murderer. That awful, criminal incident prompted an immediate political response. While Congress was considering several bills to ban bump stocks, ATF charged ahead and issued a Final Rule in 2018, amending its regulations to explicitly classify bump stocks as “machineguns” for the purposes of federal law. In doing so, the ATF repudiated its longstanding interpretation and reimagined the text of the NFA to fit its purposes. As a result, ATF ordered bump stock owners to destroy or surrender their devices or face criminal prosecution.

Definitions Have Meaning

A legal challenge made its way through the federal courts until the question of whether the agency’s action defied Congress’s “machinegun” definition landed at the Supreme Court.

The Court struck down the ATF rule banning bump stocks by a vote of 6-3 in an opinion authored by Justice Clarence Thomas. This was not a difficult case on the face of the law.

The Court held that a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock does not qualify as a machinegun for two main reasons. First, such a rifle cannot fire more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger.”  Second, even if it could, it would not do so “automatically.”  The Court explained that adding a bump stock does not change the trigger mechanism of the semiautomatic rifle, which is the key factor Congress used to define a “machinegun.”  Rather, if a shooter wants to fire multiple shots from such a rifle, he “must also actively maintain just the right amount of forward pressure on the rifle’s front grip with his nontrigger hand.”

It is important to note that the decision did not invoke the Second Amendment. Rather, the case involved a simple question of statutory interpretation: does the law mean what is says?  The ATF’s 180-degree pivot from its prior interpretation flagrantly defied the statutory text. Indeed, if the ATF’s expansive reading of the NFA were to stand – under which a firearm could be classified as a “machinegun” based solely on an individual’s ability to maintain forward pressure to achieve continuous fire instead of classification based upon the trigger mechanism – the agency could have used the same rationale to ban most semiautomatic rifles. But ATF conceded that semiautomatic rifles without bump stocks fire only one shot with each trigger pull, which demonstrated to the Court that ATF’s arguments about what constitutes a “machinegun” were inconsistent and, frankly, incoherent.

Separation of Powers

The Cargill decision is important because it reflects the conservative majority’s commitment to textualism and the separation of powers. The ruling stands for the simple proposition that courts and agencies must follow the statutory text as written rather than read in their own policy goals. In recent years, ATF has brazenly pursued its own agenda through regulatory fiat, as it has justified major policy changes by reinventing the statutory text to fit its goals. The Court has sent a clear message that ATF does not have the authority to reimagine the law. Rather, the power to amend the law resides exclusively with Congress.

While antigun groups have characterized the ruling as the product of an “activist” Court, the opposite is true. By limiting agencies and the courts to the text of a statute, the decision upholds the separation of powers by leaving the work of passing laws to Congress. The argument – embraced by the dissent – that the Court should expand the definition of “machinegun” to fit devices like bump stocks advocates for a judicial and administrative power grab in which judges and agencies go beyond Congress’s clear statutory mandate. As a result, the Court’s dedication to textualism is a form of judicial restraint.

All told, the Cargill decision is a victory for our constitutional order.


Shelby Baird Smith is NSSF’s Chief Litigation Counsel. She previously clerked for Judge Thomas M. Hardiman on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and clerked for Justice Samuel A. Alito on the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States.

2 Responses

  1. I encourage others to read the opinions yourselves.

    The majority opinion expertly and clearly dismantles the ATF’s new bump stock argument, complete with diagrams.

    In contrast, the Court’s three-lady minority (excepting ACB) are all about teh tragedy and don’t advance any kind of logical argument on the facts, about the mechanics of triggers, bump firing, etc. at all.

    Because the clear text of the statute doesn’t yield their preferred political result—the ATF having the authority to regulate whatever it pleases as “machine guns”—their opinion waves away all the detailed, clear, and inescapable arguments for why bump stocks aren’t machine guns, and instead retreats to a generic Hail Mary for statutory analysis that says you can’t interpret a statute in a way that allows it to be evaded or defeated—the presumption against ineffectiveness. Yep, that’s basically all they’ve got.

    Oh Sotomayor—or, more accurately, her clerk—does make a weak perfunctory effort to claim that there is a common sense understanding of a “single function of the trigger” that means the shooter only squeezes his finger once and that the trigger itself moving back and forward only counts as one “function of the trigger” which is both ludicrous and also—take it from a gun nut, Sonia’s law clerk!—NOT the common understanding of what a single pull of the trigger means.

    As the majority shows, this rests on conflating/confusing a single flex of the finger for a single pull of the trigger.

    And this is yet another example of the legal profession—mostly the problem is on the Left—of treating the law like a word game: your goal as lawyers and judges is to string together the right sequence of words and phrases, like an incantation, to get the desired result: there are no right or wrong answers, just human will.

    The idea is to create enough plausible deniability that you are not just making stuff up. Just throw some stuff at the wall, and as long as you can claim some sort of weak justification for the direction of your judgement, mission accomplished. (Coincidentally, this is why people hate lawyers.)

    And the minority doesn’t address why the ATF thought a bump stock wasn’t a machine gun for decades, and then did a 180. Did the law change? No, Democrat politics did. If the ATF really agreed with Sonia’s law clerk’s claim of the common understanding of a single function of the trigger, it would have classified bump stocks as machine guns the whole time. So it is obvious that neither the industry, or experts in government, or average shooters, actually had this “common” understanding.

    (And how can a “stock” be a “gun” in the first place!)

    That the mass murder in Las Vegas was horrible and intolerable is not in dispute. But changing the law in the immediate wake of a tragedy often (always?) leads to bad law. In this case, the ATF didn’t even have the power/prerogative to change the law, but went ahead anyway—the fierce urgency of now, no doubt.

    IMO we should ban changes of the law in response to tragedies until, say, 6 months has elapsed—or maybe we’d make them clear a higher vote threshold. I don’t know how you could write a law to that effect, though. It’s one of those pieces of societal wisdom that aren’t codified but contribute to a healthy polity. (N.B. Lots of commie hellhole countries have fine-sounding constitutions. It’s the unwritten cultural practices that are missing.)

    1. “And this is yet another example of the legal profession—mostly the problem is on the Left—of treating the law like a word game: your goal as lawyers and judges is to string together the right sequence of words and phrases, like an incantation, to get the desired result: there are no right or wrong answers, just human will. ”

      Sadly, you are right… 🙁

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