Legislation & Lobbying

Federal appeals court strikes down ATF rule banning rapid-fire bump stocks

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Updated: The en banc 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New Orleans has struck down a Trump administration ban on bump stocks, which are used to accelerate gunfire on semi-automatic weapons.

The Trump administration adopted the ban after a Las Vegas gunman used several weapons, including some fitted with bump stocks, to kill 58 people at a country music festival in October 2017. The ban was enacted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as a reinterpretation of an existing law banning possession of machine guns.

A bump stock uses a semi-automatic gun’s recoil to foster rapid pulling of the trigger. In a Jan. 6 opinion, the 5th Circuit ruled 13-3 that an act of Congress is required to ban bump stocks.

Among the 13-member majority, eight judges agreed the language of the federal machine-gun law—which bans guns that shoot with a single pull of the trigger—does not extend to ban nonmechanical bump stocks. Twelve members of the appeals court concluded that the law is ambiguous, and criminal liability cannot be imposed under the rule of lenity. That rule says questions about the scope of ambiguous criminal statutes should be resolved in favor of lenity.

Courts have used two standards when applying the rule of lenity. Lenity applies in the bump-stocks case, even if the more exacting standard is used, which requires a statute to be “grievously ambiguous,” the majority said.

Publications covering the decision include Bloomberg Law, Law360 and Reuters.

The plaintiff in the case, Texas gun shop owner and firearms instructor Michael Cargill, had surrendered two nonmechanical bump stocks after the new rule banned them. He was represented by the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a nonprofit civil rights organization.

The decision creates a circuit split with the 6th Circuit at Cincinnati, the 10th Circuit at Denver and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, according to a Jan. 6 press release from the New Civil Liberties Alliance. A video is here.

“We are pleased that a circuit court has finally—and decisively—recognized that Congress must be the one to pass any bump stock ban,” said Mark Chenoweth, president and general counsel of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, in the press release. “The resulting circuit split should bring this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court’s attention promptly and supply a suitable vehicle for deciding this issue once and for all.”

Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod wrote the majority opinion.

The case is Cargill v. Garland.

Updated Jan. 10 at 1:50 p.m. to correctly state that the new rule was a reinterpretation of existing law, and that the Las Vegas gunman used several weapons.

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