February 27, 2024 – Tomorrow, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in the case of Garland v. Cargill, which has the potential to shape how future Presidential administrations can implement gun control without Congressional approval. At issue in the case is whether bump stocks fall within the definition of a “machinegun” under federal law. More broadly, the question is how far ATF can go when redefining or implementing terms used in laws passed by Congress.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“ATF”) had long taken the position that firearms equipped with bump stocks were not “machineguns,” and that sold alone, bump stocks were not regulated by the NFA or GCA. However, after the Las Vegas music festival shooting in 2018, the ATF reversed course and banned firearms with bump stocks. The ATF took the new stance that bump stocks illegally convert semi-automatic rifles into “machineguns.” The regulatory ban was a direct response to Congress’s failure to ban the device after the shooting in Las Vegas, and the resulting heightened nationwide debate on gun control.

The case challenges the authority of the ATF to enact what, according to arguments by attorneys for Mr. Cargill, essentially amounts to legislation by the executive branch of government. As you may recall from civics class, legislatures enact laws, courts interpret laws and the executive branch enforces the laws. This separation of powers is critical to the proper function of our government.

The issue here stems from the federal definition of “machinegun,” and whether bump stocks, which leverage a firearm’s recoil to achieve a higher rate of fire than would typically be possible with the human finger’s actuation of the trigger, fit within this definition. Two federal appellate courts struck down the ATF’s regulation. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth and Sixth Circuits both found that the definition of a machinegun under federal law – a firearm that shoots multiple bullets “automatically” and “by a single function of the trigger,” or any accessory that allows a firearm to do so – did not apply to bump stocks. When a bump stock is affixed to a rifle, the firearm still requires the actuation of the trigger for each shot. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, however, disagreed and upheld the regulation, holding that “under the best interpretation of the statute, a bump stock is a self-regulating mechanism that allows the shooter to shoot more than one shot through a single pull of the trigger” and is therefore a “machinegun.” This court seemed to rely on the movement of the shooter’s finger (or lack thereof), as opposed to the firing mechanism in the rifle. The Biden Administration subsequently brought the case to the Supreme Court, seeking review of the rulings by the Fifth and Sixth Circuits. The opposite ruling of the D.C. Circuit is also facing challenge by the bump stock owner in that case.

This Supreme Court decision, which will interpret existing U.S. firearm regulations, is likely to set the tone for the future of U.S. gun control regulations when Congress is unwilling to pass new firearm restrictive laws. If the Supreme Court agrees that ATF went beyond its regulatory authority, future end-arounds the legislative process by the current or future Administrations should be curtailed. The outcome of this case has the potential to swing momentum in either direction, either signaling approval of broad ATF-enacted regulations pertaining to the sale and manufacture of firearms and related products, or the reinforcement of the rule of law that only Congress has the power to enact such laws.

Renzulli Law Firm continues to monitor this issue and will provide a further update after the arguments are made before the Supreme Court and a decision becomes available. If you have any questions concerning this case or any firearms related legislation, please contact John F. Renzulli or Christopher Renzulli.