Bump stocks have suffered through a rough patch, but the much-maligned devices may be getting new life. Just a few months after the 10th Circuit Court agreed to rehear a bump stock case and the ATF dropped a set of bump stock charges, a federal court of appeals has ruled against the ATF’s decision to categorize bump stocks as machine guns.
The 2-1 decision was handed down from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and granted a motion for preliminary injunction filed by Gun Owners of America and the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
Writing for the majority, Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Alice Batchelder argued that the ATF did not have the authority to criminalize millions of bump stock owners and that the agency’s application of the federal machine gun statute is improper.
“There is great risk,” she wrote, “if the responsibility of making moral condemnations is assigned to bureaucrats in the nation’s capital who are physically, and often culturally, distant from the rest of the country. Federal criminal laws are not administrative edicts handed down upon the masses as if the administrators were God delivering the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.”
The ATF had relied on a principle known as the Chevron deference doctrine when it made its unilateral decision to reverse course and declare bump stocks machine guns. This doctrine holds that the courts should defer to administrative agencies when a law is unclear as long as that interpretation is reasonable and Congress has not directly spoken on an issue.
But Judge Batchelder pointed out that the Chevron doctrine does not apply to criminal statutes. As the Supreme Court ruled in 2014, “we have never held that the government’s reading of a criminal statute is entitled to any deference.” (Emphasis in original.) Since the ATF’s decision made millions of Americans felons overnight, Chevron does not apply.
Judge Batchelder also argued that the ATF’s application of the federal machine gun statute is improper. Federal law describes machine guns as those which fire with “a single function of the trigger.” Since the law refers to the trigger and not to the shooter’s trigger finger, bump stocks should not qualify as machine guns.
“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,” she wrote. “With or without a bump stock, a semiautomatic firearm is capable of firing only a single shot for each pull of the trigger.”
It’s important to note that the 6th Circuit’s decision does not by itself reverse the ATF’s interpretation. The three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit sent the case back to the District Court, which will determine how widespread the injunction will be. If the District Court applies it to the entire circuit, the injunction would only cover Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.
The federal government can also request the case to be heard by the entire 6th Circuit or it can appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.