Fifth Circuit appeals court rules ATF bump-stock ban to be unlawful

In 2018, following the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting and at the urging of then-President Donald Trump, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives reinterpreted its definition of “machinegun” to include so-called “bump-stock” device attachments for semiautomatic weapons that utilize the weapon’s recoil to mimic the increased rate of fire of automatic weapons.

In a 13-3 ruling on Friday, though, the entire Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down that ATF reinterpretation as unlawful and beyond its authority, the Conservative Brief reported.

However, given that multiple lower courts and other circuit courts have previously ruled to uphold the ATF’s redefinition of “machinegun” to include bump-stock devices, it seems likely that this issue will need to eventually be fully settled by the Supreme Court.

Trump’s ATF banned bump-stock devices

It was in December 2018 that the Justice Department announced that, in accordance with an order from then-President Trump, the ATF had reinterpreted the definition of “machinegun” within the National Firearms Act of 1934 and Gun Control Act of 1968 to include bump-stock devices as being generally banned among the American citizenry.

In response to that, a gun owner named Michael Cargill was compelled to get rid of bump-stock devices that he owned, but in doing so he also filed a lawsuit to challenge the ATF’s suddenly reinterpreted rule — particularly in light of the fact that for more than a decade prior the ATF had repeatedly assured gun owners that bump-stocks were perfectly legal to own and operate.

Unfortunately for Cargill, a district court ruled against him and in favor of the ATF, as did a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit that upheld the district court’s ruling. That changed when Cargill brought his case before the entire 16-member bench of the appeals court, though.

Bump-stocks are not “machineguns”

In the majority opinion, the court noted that “Cargill is correct” in his assertions, that “A plain reading of the statutory language, paired with close consideration of the mechanics of a semi-automatic firearm, reveals that a bump stock is excluded from the technical definition of ‘machinegun’ set forth in the Gun Control Act and National Firearms Act.”

Indeed, the court closely scrutinized the grammar and language of the statute in question as well as analyzed the mechanical operations of automatic and semiautomatic firearms to ultimately determine that the key part to the definition of a “machinegun” is “any weapon which shoots … automatically more than one shot … by a single function of the trigger.”

Given the fact that a trigger on a semiautomatic weapon, even one equipped with a bump-stock device, must still “function” or be pulled for each single shot fired, it was concluded that a bump-stock-equipped semiautomatic weapon was still technically a semiautomatic and not a “machinegun” that fires multiple rounds automatically with a single trigger pull.

Furthermore, the court ruled additionally that any “ambiguity” in the statutory language and definitions would invoke what is known as the rule of lenity, in which courts side with citizens against the government in cases where statutory language, particularly when criminal liability is involved, is unclear.

Congress, and not the ATF, has sole authority here

“This case is not about gun control. It is instead about who has the constitutional prerogative to change the criminal law if changes are warranted,” Richard Samp, the attorney for Cargill, said in a statement following the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, according to Fox News.

“The current statute, adopted in 1986, defines ‘machinegun’ in a manner that does not encompass non-mechanical bump stocks,” he added. “It is unlawful for a prosecutorial entity like ATF to rewrite existing law without authorization from Congress. Any change in gun-control laws must emanate from Congress.”

It seems likely that President Joe Biden’s anti-gun administration, which has defended the Trump-era bump-stock rule, will appeal this case to the Supreme Court.

Unfortunately for Biden and those who support the ban on bump stocks, the current bench of the high court has shown already that it frowns upon federal overreach as well as relatively recent gun control laws that lack historical analogs in the United States.

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