At one point in time, it would be unimaginable that possession of a piece of plastic that attaches to a firearm would carry a penalty of imprisonment of up to 10 years, a fine of up to $250,000, or both.
But that is what President Donald Trump’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) did in the wake of the Las Vegas Shooting by classifying bump stocks as “machineguns” under the National Firearms Act.
This reclassification effectively made law-abiding Americans’ lawfully purchased property illegal, despite the fact that President Barack Obama’s ATF had confirmed and reconfirmed that bump stocks were “firearm parts” and not subject to NFA restrictions in 2010, 2012, and again in 2013.
Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the principal author of the 94’ Assault Weapons Ban, believed that the Trump administration overreached when it prohibited the reciprocating stocks in 2018.
“The ATF currently lacks authority under the law to ban bump stocks. The agency made this clear in a 2013 letter to Congress, writing that ‘stocks of this type are not subject to the provisions of federal firearms statutes.’ The ATF director said the same thing to police chiefs a few months ago, which they confirmed in an open Judiciary Committee hearing,” Feinstein said at the time.
The ATF’s ability to interpret the law and issue public or specifically addressed “Opinion Letters” of a given federal statue stems from the Supreme Court case Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. (467 U.S. 837 (1984)).
Per the ruling, the Supreme Court has empowered agencies (such as ATF) to make determinations on an ambiguous or unclear statue so long as the “interpretation is reasonable,” and compels lower courts to defer to these agencies’ interpretations. This power handed to the bureaucratic state has become known as Chevron Deference.
In a direct challenge to the ATF’s reclassification of bump stocks, Damien Guedes of the Firearm Policy Coalition, and other pro-gun groups, sued the ATF, it’s acting director, and the attorney general, challenging President Trump’s bump stock ban through executive fiat.
In their petition to the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs outline that the court of appeals “applied Chevron deference in a manner that stretches that doctrine beyond its breaking point,” continuing, Chevron was never intended to be used as an “interpretation of a central element of a criminal statute,” and concluded that the lower court’s ruling “conflicts with numerous holdings of this Court, mischaracterizes the nature of Chevron deference, distorts the litigation process and the government’s prerogative regarding whether and how to exercise any implicitly delegated authority, and undermines fundamental tenets of our constitutional structure.”
On Monday (3-1-2020), the Supreme Court denied Guedes’ writ of certiorari. Unlike most denials of a writ, where the public at large does not get an indication of the court’s leanings of the case, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch released a separate statement that gave more insight into the case’s standing.
Justice Gorsuch agreed with the petitioners that the Chevron Deference had been inappropriately applied in this case, and even noted that the Trump administration had also asked the lower courts to wave it.
“The executive branch and affected citizens asked the court to do what courts usually do in statutory interpretation disputes: supply its best independent judgment about what the law means,” Justice Gorsuch remarked. “But, instead of deciding the case the old-fashioned way, the court placed an uninvited thumb on the scale in favor of the government.”
The justice went on to raise skepticism of the appropriateness in deferring to the government’s interpretation of the law in this case.
“The law hasn’t changed; only an agency’s interpretation of it. And these days it sometimes seems agencies change their statutory interpretations almost as often as elections change administrations… Why should courts, charged with the independent and neutral interpretation of the laws Congress has enacted, defer to such bureaucratic pirouetting?”
Ultimately the justice sided with his colleagues that the court should wait to hear the case, noting that multiple lower courts are currently dealing with the prohibition.
“Before deciding whether to weigh in, we would benefit from hearing their considered judgments — provided, of course, that they are not afflicted with the same problems. But waiting should not be mistaken for lack of concern,” Gorsuch concluded.
Editor’s note: This article was written by Michael Johnson Jr.