ATF’s Reinterpretation of Bump Stocks Under Scrutiny as Supreme Court Hears Garland v. Cargill

The Supreme Court is preparing to hear arguments on February 28 in the case of Garland v. Cargill, which will examine whether bump stocks transform semiautomatic firearms into a type of “machine gun” that falls under federal law prohibitions.

Bump stocks have been a topic of controversy for years, with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) initially stating that nonmechanical bump stocks, those lacking internal springs, did not qualify as machine guns as they did not generate automatic fire. The ATF’s stance, however, shifted in 2018 following the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas where the shooter utilized firearms equipped with bump stocks, resulting in 58 fatalities.

Michael Cargill, a radio host for the show “Come and Talk It,” challenged the ATF’s revised interpretation from 2018. He argued that it contravened a section of the Administrative Procedures Act. Despite losing in two lower court rulings, the Fifth Circuit, in an en banc decision, ruled in his favor. By a 13-3 vote, the Fifth Circuit overturned the lower court ruling, stating that an act of Congress was necessary to ban bump stocks. A majority of the judges believed that the law clearly did not encompass nonmechanical bump stocks, while others invoked the rule of lenity, which typically directs courts to rule in favor of a defendant when the law is ambiguous.

The debate over bump stocks has largely centered on Congress’ choice to classify machine guns as “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 ATF had previously grappled with this issue in 2006, following the expiration of a ban on certain semiautomatic rifles, often referred to as “assault weapons.” At that time, the ATF stated that removing the device’s internal spring would classify the device as a non-machine gun according to the statutory definition. However, in 2018, this stance was reversed with the ATF’s new rule stating that the spring exception did not represent the best interpretation of the term ‘machinegun.’

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is now defending the notion that all bump stocks should be considered machine guns because they enable a firearm to discharge more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger.” Cargill countered this argument by stating that the ATF was defying common sense by suggesting that a process could still be deemed automatic even if it necessitated “additional human input.” His brief elaborated on his argument, stating, “When [federal law] states that a weapon is a machinegun if it fires multiple rounds ‘automatically’ based on ‘a single function of the trigger,’ that provision is properly read as excluding weapons that will fire multiple rounds only if the shooter undertakes a task in addition to effecting a single function of the trigger.”