Appeals court determines bump stocks are not equivalent to machine guns

Following a mass shooting in Las Vegas, then-President Donald Trump responded to mounting political pressure by issuing a 2017 executive order rendering so-called “bump stock” firearm attachments to be classified as machine guns and therefore generally unlawful to purchase.

That rule has since been challenged in court, with the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversing a lower decision and determining that bump stocks are not technically machine guns and should not be banned.

Points of consideration

The matter had previously been deferred to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives by a district court, and the federal agency upheld the new rule interpretation.

In 2019, the ATF issued its final statement, formally deeming bump stock attachments to be equivalent to machine guns and, per prior gun-control legislation, illegal for the average American to possess.

After making the attachments illegal, the bureau gave those who owned the devices two options to avoid criminal liability: either render the device inoperable or turn it over to the ATF without compensation. Gun Owners of America joined other gun-rights groups and individual advocates in filing a legal challenge to the decision, but a district court ruled against them.

Most recently, however, a three-judge appeals court panel reversed the ruling and remanded the case back to the lower court for further consideration, suggesting that an injunction be ordered against enforcement of the rule.

The majority opinion specifically looked at the legal doctrine — known as the Chevron deference — used by the lower court, by which ambiguous rules are generally deferred to government agency interpretations.

“Only one shot for each pull of the trigger”

In its review, the appeals court determined that the standard only applies in cases involving administrative rules and that cases involving criminal statute, the “rule of lenity” — or deferring to the accused instead of the government — was the more applicable doctrine.

After addressing that issue, the appeals court panel considered the bump stock itself and how it works in comparison to the statutory definition of a machine gun. Essentially, the matter hinged on the “single function of the trigger,” the court determined, and whether one or more rounds are fired for every single trigger pull.

“We recognize that a bump stock increases a semiautomatic firearm’s rate of firing, possibly to a rate nearly equal to that of an automatic weapon,” the judges wrote. “With a bump stock attached to a semiautomatic firearm, however, the trigger still must be released, reset, and pulled again before another shot may be fired.”

For that reason, the court concluded: “A bump stock may change how the pull of the trigger is accomplished, but it does not change the fact that the semiautomatic firearm shoots only one shot for each pull of the trigger.”

In a statement to American Military News, Gun Owners of America Senior Vice President Erich Pratt celebrated the ruling as one that “told gun owners what they already knew,” adding that his organization was “glad the court finally applied the statute accurately and struck down the ATF’s illegal overreach and infringement of gun owners’ rights.”

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