December 4, 2023

The Supreme Court of The United States (SCOTUS) will decide if the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) overstepped its authority by reclassifying bump stocks to machineguns.

The case, Cargill v. Garland, was bought by Texas gun store owner Michael Cargill with the help of the New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA) against the ATF’s regulation on bump stocks. For years, the ATF maintained that bump stocks were legal and did not meet the definition of a machinegun. Many Americans purchased the item even though many others believed the product to be a gimmick.

A bump stock replaces the pistol grip and stock of a semiautomatic rifle with a unit that is allowed to slide. This innovation and forward pressure on the handguard allow the firearm’s recoil to reset the trigger, enabling the shooter to fire rapidly. The gun only fires one round per function of a trigger and, therefore, doesn’t meet the definition of a machinegun as defined under federal law.

In 2017, a mass killing took place at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. The killer murdered 58 people and wounded 413 other concertgoers by firing on the crowd from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Convention Center. Law enforcement authorities claimed to have recovered several AR-15s from the hotel room and alleged that several were equipped with bump stocks.

Immediately, there were calls to ban the device from anti-gun politicians and activists. Then President Donald Trump gave into pressure and directed the ATF to ban the devices.

The ATF would use Chevron deference to issue a new rule that would redefine a bump stock from a simple accessory to a machinegun conversion device. Chevron deference states that if a statute is unclear, the regulating agency interprets the regulation.

The plaintiffs in Cargill claimed that the legal definition is not ambiguous. They claim the definition of a machinegun is clear, and bump stocks do not meet the definition that Congress laid out. They also claim that Chevron deference was never intended to be used in a criminal statute. Only Congress can make laws, and the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) prevents an agency from making de facto laws.

The plaintiffs also claim that even if the law was unclear, the ATF’s bump stock ban violated the rule of lenity. The rule of lenity is a principle of criminal statutory interpretation that requires that when a law is unclear or ambiguous, a court must apply the law in the manner that is most favorable to the defendant.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiffs. By a margin of 13-3, the court struck down the ATF’s rule.

This court decision would be a different conclusion from other Circuit Courts, causing a circuit split. The federal government would petition SCOTUS for a writ of certiorari, meaning it wanted SCOTUS to hear the case. It would also ask for a stay on the Fifth Circuit’s decision.

SCOTUS would grant the ATF its stay while deciding whether to grant cert. Now, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.

The outcome of this case will have a rippling effect across other ATF’s rules. A positive outcome could help knock down ATF’s rules on pistol braces and privately manufactured firearms (PMF). The gravity of the case isn’t lost on Michael Cargill.

“Five years ago, I was told to not put up a fight and let the government take bump stocks,” Cargill told AmmoLand News. “I chose not to listen, and now the Michael Cargill bump stock case has the chance to save all firearm parts and accessories.”

There isn’t a timetable for oral arguments in the case, but the gun world is watching with bated breath.

About John Crump


John Crump

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