Buckle up, buckaroos. We’ve got some dense legalese to get through today. On March 25, 2021, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, reversed and remanded a lower court decision that denied a preliminary injunction against the ATF’s enforcement of the bump stock ban. I know that many of you are thinking the same thing that I had thought. Wait, what? I thought the whole bump stock ban thing was already over and done? A done deal, set in stone, lost and never to return. But it appears this is not the case, so without any further ado, let’s get into the meat of the matter.
History of the Bump stock Case
As I’m sure many of you readers remember, on December 26th, 2018, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE, or ATF) published a ruling classifying bump stocks as machineguns (referred to as the Final Rule). A bump stock, for anyone who does not know, is a stock that simulates automatic fire. It is, for all intents and purposes, a range toy. Not quite as fun (or expensive) as a true machinegun, but definitely enjoyable.
First, the plaintiffs asked the court for a preliminary injunction. To put it simply, the plaintiffs asked the court to stop the government from enforcing the bump stock rule. At least while their lawsuit was pending. It’s a widespread legal practice across most of the legal profession. However, the lower court held that the ATF’s interpretation was entitled to Chevron deference and denied the injunction.
Chevron is a legal doctrine that comes to us from the Supreme Court case Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. Chevron’s essence is that so long as Congress has not specifically dealt with some issue, if a government agency has made some interpretation of the law dealing with that issue, the courts should defer to the agency’s interpretation. That is, so long as that answer or interpretation is not unreasonable. You can read more about Chevron here at the Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute.
Cornell Law School’s LII writes:
The scope of the Chevron deference doctrine is that when a legislative delegation to an administrative agency on a particular issue or question is not explicit but rather implicit, a court may not substitute its own interpretation of the statute for a reasonable interpretation made by the administrative agency.
Like I said, we’re getting into some dense legalese today.
So to tie it back to the issue at hand. According to the lower court, the ATF’s interpretation gets Chevron deference. Because of that deference, the plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed in their case, and the court denied the injunction. The plaintiffs appealed this denial and requested that the Final Rule’s effective date be “stayed” (extended). The stay was denied by both the 6th Circuit and the Supreme Court, and the rule took effect on March 26, 2019.
The rule has been effective for just a day under a full year now. But, the wheels of the courts grind very, very slowly. So the plaintiffs-appellants appeal of the district court’s denial of their request for preliminary injunction (legalese is fun) has only just been decided on today.
The 6th Circuit held that the lower court erred in giving the ATF’s interpretation of a criminal statute Chevron deference. The court also wrote that the ATF’s interpretation wasn’t necessarily correct. For a court to reverse and remand, the higher court says that the lower court screwed up and needs to try again. It’s not at all dissimilar to your 5th-grade math teacher pointing out that you forgot to carry the four, and you need to re-do the problem. The lower court may consider the higher court’s opinion and still come out with the same answer. It’s not common, but it does happen.
The Court’s Reasoning
But why? Why did the 6th Circuit come to a different decision than the district court? First, because the lower court made Chevron out to be more than it really is. In the legal world, Chevron is a big deal. No, really, it’s a Big Deal with capital letters. Courts still get it wrong on occasion, which is why we have the appellate process. Chevron has one huge, glaring, neon-pink exception to the deference, though. In 1990 SCOTUS made that drive-a-truck-through-it-big exception crystal clear when they said in Crandon v. United States:
we have never held that the Government’s reading of a criminal statute is entitled to any deference.
It was the late, the great, Justice Scalia who wrote those words.
In this instance, the ATF was interpreting a criminal statute. The court, therefore, shouldn’t give them any deference. Meaning that the lower court was definitely wrong to give the ATF’s interpretation of a machinegun Chevron deference.
The Interesting Part
That’s not what’s really interesting about this case, though. Up until right about here, in the opinion, it’s all very standard legal stuff. Where it gets interesting is that the 6th Circuit disagrees with the ATF’s interpretation. In fact, they go so far as to say that:
a bump stock does not fall within the statutory definition of a machine gun.
Big happenings in the 6th circuit. The court’s reasoning is fairly straightforward and familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the arguments about “is a bump stock a machinegun”. A machinegun has a federal definition of “any weapon which shoots, is designed to shoot, or can be readily restored to shoot, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.” The sticky wicket here is the “single function of the trigger”. The ATF argues that “function” refers to either the mechanical process (the trigger’s movement) or the human process (the shooter’s pulling the trigger). Since a bump stock allows the shooter to only physically move their finger once, it’s a machinegun.
The court disagrees with the human process argument. The text of the law refers specifically to the function of the trigger, not the operator. Since the trigger itself still only functions once per shot, a bump stock is not a machinegun.
Thus, reverse and remand.
What happens now?
To be clear, bump stocks are still machineguns on a federal level. If the ATF catches you with one, they will lock you up. You will have a bad time. The opinion of the court specifically states they are not making a broad ruling here.
[W]e would not purport to issue a universal or nationwide injunction, and we otherwise leave the issue of the scope of the injunction to be briefed by the parties and decided
by the district court.
However, there is a chance that this may change in the future. Don’t bet on it, don’t go dredging any lakes to see if something’s left after your “boating accident”. But if you want to follow the case, any decisions or updates will appear here on TFB.
You can read the court’s decision here.