In 2018, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) put forward a new interpretation of a rule that effectively banned “bump stock” rifle accessories by classifying the device as capable of transforming a standard semi-automatic rifle into a heavily restricted fully automatic machinegun.
The Gun Owners of America organization filed suit to challenge that reinterpreted rule and have since appealed the case to the Supreme Court, where the group is now supported with a brief filed by 22 attorneys general from Republican-led states, Just the News reported.
Those state attorneys general argued that bump stocks don’t transform ordinary rifles into machineguns, that the ATF isn’t due any deference to reinterpret rules as it pleases, and that the new rule itself infringes upon a fundamental right of the American people, namely the Second Amendment-protected right to keep and bear arms.
Bump stocks are not machineguns
At issue in the case of Gun Owners of America, Inc. v. Garland, according to SCOTUSblog, is the question of whether or not a bump stock attachment turns an ordinary rifle into a machinegun.
The key feature that constitutes a fully automatic machinegun is the capability to fire more than one round with a single pull of a trigger, as opposed to semi-automatic firearms that fire only a single round per trigger pull.
In that regard, while a bump stock works to substantially increase the rate of fire of an ordinary rifle, it does so by using the firearm’s recoil to move the trigger back and forth into a trigger finger, resetting and “pulling” the trigger again for each shot. Thus, while it can mimic an automatic machinegun, but still only fires one round per pull of the trigger.
Whether to defer to federal agencies or individual rights
The primary concern of the 22 state attorneys general in their 37-page brief, however, wasn’t necessarily the glaring overreach of the ATF’s reinterpretation that would instantly transform hundreds of thousands of legal gun owners into criminals.
Rather, it was a conflict between two competing judicial approaches to how government agencies interpret the rules that are derived from the laws passed by Congress.
The first of those, which a district court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals relied upon, is known as Chevron deference, in which courts defer to the purported subject matter expertise of government agencies in cases where rules are ambiguous. Opposite of that is what is known as the rule of lenity, which defers to individual liberty and rights instead of the government in ambiguous cases.
The brief argued that Chevron is not applicable to criminal statutes while the rule of lenity is, that Congress would have legislatively banned bump stocks if there was support to do so, and that the ATF rule as written was a gross infringement of the Second Amendment and individual liberty.
ATF can’t rewrite criminal statutes and courts shouldn’t defer to agency judgment
“The significance of this case goes beyond any firearm accessory and gun rights. No federal agency should be able to create criminal code without Congressional authorization,” Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who is leading the 22-state coalition, told Just the News. “The Supreme Court must take up this important case to uphold the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment and affirm this important check on the federal executive’s power.”
Also leading the effort on this amicus brief to the Supreme Court is the attorney general of West Virginia, and those two states were joined by the likes of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.