By Ryan Morgan
A federal appeals court has rejected an interpretation of law offered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that bump stock devices should be considered machinegun parts and should, therefore, be banned.
Bump stocks are devices that replace the standard stock of a semiautomatic rifle, resting against the user’s shoulder and incorporating the grip behind the trigger. When the rifle is fired, recoil presses the rifle back, resetting the trigger mechanism. But with forward pressure on the barrel, the bump stock allows the barrel—and trigger—to then “bump” forward, pressing against the trigger finger. This allows the user to fire multiple shots from the semiautomatic rifle in rapid succession.
The ATF initially determined that bump stocks were not a firearm component subject to regulation, but in 2017—after a shooter used multiple rifles configured with bump stocks to fire into a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas, killing 58 and injuring hundreds in around 10 minutes—the ATF began reconsidering whether such devices could be regulated through their administrative rulemaking. In 2018, the federal agency decided that the devices should be considered machinegun parts as defined in the National Firearms Act (NFA).
The ATF’s 2018 ruling on bump stocks set off several lawsuits, which challenged the agency’s authority to issue such an interpretation of the law. On Tuesday, a three-judge panel on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision (pdf) on one such legal challenge, unanimously ruling that the ATF lacks the authority to ban bump stocks through their own interpretation of the existing federal law.
What Is A Machinegun?
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.” The plaintiff in the case, Scott Hardin, argued that the ATF ruling against bump stocks was invalid because bump stocks do not actually allow automatic fire, but rather enable the user of a semiautomatic rifle to fire it at a faster rate.
“Because the relevant statutory scheme does not clearly and unambiguously prohibit bump stocks, we are bound to construe the statute in Hardin’s favor,” judges Ronald Gilman, David McKeague and John Bush assessed in their majority opinion.
Bush, a Trump appointee, offered a concurring opinion, stating that “at a minimum, as the majority opinion holds, the National Firearms Act of 1934 admits of an interpretation that excludes a bump stock from the definition of a ‘part’ of a ‘machinegun’ under that statute.”
The judges wrote that if bump stocks are to be banned, it must now be done through an act of Congress rather than an interpretation of the law by an executive branch agency.
“An Act of Congress could clear up the ambiguities, but so far Congress has failed to act. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (the ATF) has been on both sides of this issue, with its current regulation (the Rule) banning bump stocks as a machinegun part,” the appeals court ruled. “In this situation, the rule of lenity that is applicable to criminal offenses requires us to rule in favor of Hardin.”
Courts Split on Bump Stocks
This latest ruling from the Sixth Circuit Court comes after a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an en banc decision—from all of its judges—with the majority ruling against the ATF’s interpretation of the law on bump stocks.
While the Fifth and Sixth Circuit Courts have sided against the ATF, the Tenth Circuit Court and the D.C. Circuit have ruled in the ATF’s favor, supporting their bump stock ban.
The Tenth Circuit Court majority determined that a bump stock is “self-acting under conditions fixed for it” because the “shooter’s positioning of the trigger finger on the extension ledge and application of forward pressure on the front of the gun provide the conditions necessary for the bump stock to repeatedly perform its purpose: to eliminate the need for the shooter to manually capture the recoil energy to fire additional rounds.” The court’s majority also said the ATF rule “sets forth a reasonable interpretation of the statute’s ambiguous definition of ‘machinegun.’”
The bump stocks issue could eventually go before the U.S. Supreme Court. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court (pdf) to take up the issue.
From NTD News