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Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court took a major step in reining in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) administrative overreach. The Court held in Garland v. Cargill that the agency exceeded its statutory authority by classifying semiautomatic rifles equipped with bump stocks as “machineguns” under the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA).

The NFA defines a “machinegun” 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.” For many years, the ATF took the consistent position – over several administrations – that semiautomatic rifles equipped with bump stocks did not meet this definition.

However, the agency did an about-face in the wake of the tragic murders in 2017 in Las Vegas in which bump stocks were used by the murderer. That awful, criminal incident prompted an immediate political response. While Congress was considering several bills to ban bump stocks, ATF charged ahead and issued a Final Rule in 2018, amending its regulations to explicitly classify bump stocks as “machineguns” for the purposes of federal law. In doing so, the ATF repudiated its longstanding interpretation and reimagined the text of the NFA to fit its purposes. As a result, ATF ordered bump stock owners to destroy or surrender their devices or face criminal prosecution.

Definitions Have Meaning

A legal challenge made its way through the federal courts until the question of whether the agency’s action defied Congress’s “machinegun” definition landed at the Supreme Court.

The Court struck down the ATF rule banning bump stocks by a vote of 6-3 in an opinion authored by Justice Clarence Thomas. This was not a difficult case on the face of the law.

The Court held that a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock does not qualify as a machinegun for two main reasons. First, such a rifle cannot fire more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger.”  Second, even if it could, it would not do so “automatically.”  The Court explained that adding a bump stock does not change the trigger mechanism of the semiautomatic rifle, which is the key factor Congress used to define a “machinegun.”  Rather, if a shooter wants to fire multiple shots from such a rifle, he “must also actively maintain just the right amount of forward pressure on the rifle’s front grip with his nontrigger hand.”

It is important to note that the decision did not invoke the Second Amendment. Rather, the case involved a simple question of statutory interpretation: does the law mean what is says?  The ATF’s 180-degree pivot from its prior interpretation flagrantly defied the statutory text. Indeed, if the ATF’s expansive reading of the NFA were to stand – under which a firearm could be classified as a “machinegun” based solely on an individual’s ability to maintain forward pressure to achieve continuous fire instead of classification based upon the trigger mechanism – the agency could have used the same rationale to ban most semiautomatic rifles. But ATF conceded that semiautomatic rifles without bump stocks fire only one shot with each trigger pull, which demonstrated to the Court that ATF’s arguments about what constitutes a “machinegun” were inconsistent and, frankly, incoherent.

Separation of Powers

The Cargill decision is important because it reflects the conservative majority’s commitment to textualism and the separation of powers. The ruling stands for the simple proposition that courts and agencies must follow the statutory text as written rather than read in their own policy goals. In recent years, ATF has brazenly pursued its own agenda through regulatory fiat, as it has justified major policy changes by reinventing the statutory text to fit its goals. The Court has sent a clear message that ATF does not have the authority to reimagine the law. Rather, the power to amend the law resides exclusively with Congress.

While antigun groups have characterized the ruling as the product of an “activist” Court, the opposite is true. By limiting agencies and the courts to the text of a statute, the decision upholds the separation of powers by leaving the work of passing laws to Congress. The argument – embraced by the dissent – that the Court should expand the definition of “machinegun” to fit devices like bump stocks advocates for a judicial and administrative power grab in which judges and agencies go beyond Congress’s clear statutory mandate. As a result, the Court’s dedication to textualism is a form of judicial restraint.

All told, the Cargill decision is a victory for our constitutional order.

—Shelby Baird Smith

Shelby Baird Smith is NSSF’s Chief Litigation Counsel. She previously clerked for Judge Thomas M. Hardiman on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and clerked for Justice Samuel A. Alito on the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States.

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56 COMMENTS

  1. That’s right it took the equivilant of thousands constructing the Hoover Dam to determine if a Bumpstock and Jerry Miculek are not Machine Guns. The drama waiting for a decision was unbearable.

    On the other hand the Reaction from Gun talking Rambo wannabes following Vegas to POTUS DJT throwing bumpstocks under the bus was despicable. Never mind doing nothing and risking a knee jerk congress taking the wheel and throwing a laundry list of products under the bus. An EO can and was reversed, an Act of Congress would have been an entirely different ballgame.

    How quick and easy it was for gutless Rambo wannabes to turn on POTUS DJT and join hands with Trump slandering Gun Control democRats. And still today with an upcoming crucial election the politically inept Rambo wannabes continue to hold hands with sleazy scum of the earth Gun Control democRats to slander DJT.

    Bottom line…It is election time and the choice for POTUS is as crystal clear as it gets. Some people need to man up and pull their stupid, ignorant lips off democRat behinds.

    TRUMP 2024.

    • How anyone can flap their lips for so long without saying anything even remotely resembling cognizant thought continues to baffle and amaze me.

      Still, I’m willing to see ya. Wanna get together and let sparks ignite? 😉

      • Geoff,

        c.f., MajorLiar, and proof that the “right” can be just as STOOPID as the Leftist/fascists. They don’t need to THINK; they have “talking points”!!!

        She constantly rattles her dentures over the premise of “gun control = racism” without EVER acknowledging that, while that is historically true, and there may remain elements of it, MODERN “gun control” is all about the “control”. The fascist Left cannot stand the idea of free, independent people taking control of their own lives/safety. Americans are increasingly (at a consistent rate of over 1 million per month, for the last 50+ months), choosing to take responsibility for that.

        To say that Debbie Dimwit is ‘behind the curve’ is axiomatic, but don’t neglect the willful blindness (and outright LIES) of MajorLiar and his ilk. Right-wing stupid is no more defensible than is Left-wing stupid. Stupid is stupid, or, as Forrest Gump might say, “Stupid is as stupid does”. I am comfortable saying Debbie Dimwit is stupid.

    • “TRUMP 2024“

      Another reason to worship Donald Trump, the “Chosen One”.

      “John Kelly confirms Trump privately disparaged U.S. service members and veterans
      Trump called fallen soldiers “suckers” and “losers” during his presidency, according to a 2020 report in The Atlantic.
      Oct. 3, 2023, 9:22 AM EDT
      By Summer Concepcion

      In a statement to CNN published Monday, Kelly delivered a scathing criticism of former President Donald Trump while confirming reporting in The Atlantic in 2020 that detailed the comments he made during his presidency.

      “A person that thinks those who defend their country in uniform, or are shot down or seriously wounded in combat, or spend years being tortured as POWs are all ‘suckers’ because ‘there is nothing in it for them,’” Kelly said of Trump. “A person that did not want to be seen in the presence of military amputees because ‘it doesn’t look good for me.’ A person who demonstrated open contempt for a Gold Star family — for all Gold Star families — on TV during the 2016 campaign, and rants that our most precious heroes who gave their lives in America’s defense are ‘losers’ and wouldn’t visit their graves in France.”

      https://www.nbcnews.com/news/amp/rcna118543

  2. I am wondering if/when someone is going to challenge the National Firearms Act of 1934 itself and attempt to chop off the proverbial head of the beast.

    • If current political trends continue I would imagine within the next 20 years. Lot of other casework would likely be needed to setup an airtight challenge and removing a lot of agency interpretation is a wonderful start. The fun/painful part will be arguing that the 2nd amendment is much like the rest of the bill of rights applicable to all states with a bare minimum of ability to restrict at the state level. Bruen was huge in that it made fighting the authoritarian creep via legal means possible at all. Now we have to determine whether the legal means is a trap to waste time and resources or the best option available.

      • “If current political trends continue I would imagine within the next 20 years.”

        Maybe suppressors, as they are sold in the rest of the world without any paperwork more extensive than a standard gun sale.

        The rest of it, *highly* doubtful, as even the watershed ‘Heller’ decision recognized there were ‘exceptionally-dangerous weapons’ that could be banned or extensively regulated.

        What I would rather see happen is to re-open the select-fire registry. That way, they can call bump-fire stocks machine guns, and we can get auto-sears available again…

        • Don’t underestimate the call of duty generation wanting what it can’t have vs what boomers think is a waste dynamic. Especially if we go through with a draft in the next couple of years as I fear we may.

  3. In 2017 there were 2 choices with both being bad, but one was clearly better that the other.
    1. Allow congress to pass legislation that would/could have been rigorous and may have opened doors for even more restrictive legislation limiting rights. If congress had taken up the issue and passed laws, the end results would have been a disaster and their actions would have been difficult to nullify/overturn. The resulting damage to POTG would have been catastrophic.

    Whereas,
    2. The Executive Order signed by President Trump definitely was not ideal, but it was ideal in that it left POTG a far easier barrier to destroy just as we have recently observed in SCOTUS.

    Keep in mind there was not a 3rd choice and it should be obvious that 2 was the better of the 2. Doing nothing was not a viable choice and would have left the issue in the lap of congress. Sure congress may have done nothing or have failed, but was the end results of congressional action worth the risk?

    President Trump was caught between a rock and a hard spot and at the “time” he did the prudent thing.
    Please consider the time(2017) and the political climate at that time.

    • I’ll consider that, if you’ll weigh it along with the fact that DJT and a Republican controlled house and senate FAILED to pass the Hearing Protection Act and National Carry Reciprocity, and they have shown their RINO stripes numerous times since then. Even the SC appointees have proven to be squishy, as predicted by many of us.
      The lesser of two evils is still an evil.

      • unicorn, I do agree with you on all points. “The lesser of two evils is still an evil.”
        The point I attempted to make was that of the 2 evils a lesser of the 2 did exist.
        Bluntly: RINOs red my ass!

      • Did they have 60 votes in the Senate? No? Then the hearing protection act much like a lot of the commie minded legislation of the last 4 years is dead on arrival as well.

          • Neocon or RINO they are all commies to me as that inevitably is the direction their policies would end up (totalitarian of some fancy description more accurately but commie doesn’t trip the filters and is jarring enough to get the more complacent thinking)

        • SAFEupstateFML,

          I came to post the same thing: Republicans most certainly did NOT control the U.S. Senate in 2017 because they did not have 60 votes in the U.S. Senate.

          For the unaware, the U.S. Senate requires a 60 vote majority to pass anything other than budgetary bills (which only require a simple majority).

        • Oh, you mean like the “Bipartisan Safer Communities Act of 2023” ?
          Gimme an effin break, you’re starting to sound like our Head Cheerleader Debbie

          • Would need to review that one but wasn’t it introduced by a neocon/RINO and largely supported by the same for the “bipartisan” support?

      • “…the fact that DJT and a Republican controlled house and senate FAILED to pass the Hearing Protection Act and National Carry Reciprocity,…”

        It’s not a failure when we didn’t have the votes necessary to override the filibuster.

        The filibuster may suck, but without it, we risk getting really bad laws passed on the narrowest of margins. If that happens, we get mad enough to turn out to vote next time, then we get the narrowest margin to kill that law. That sets up an *endless* back-and-forth every election cycle that we never escape from.

        It sucks, but sucks a whole lot less than the literal anarchy of the alternative.

        Picture this – They get the 50.1 percent of the votes to shut down the NFA entirely and destroy EVERY NFA device. They have your name, address and even your fingerprints to do that.

        Turn them in in 30 days or else you go to federal prison for a minimum of a ten year sentence. That would be perfectly legal for them to do.

        Be grateful for the filibuster… 🙁

    • Congress at the time was going to pass this evil gun control legislation with enough support to override a veto??? At a minimum, Pres. Trump (noted for his deal-making ability) could have offered the bump-stock ban in exchange for something useful (Hearing Protection Act, ending the stupid restriction on guns in Post Offices, ending the stupid Gun Free School Zones Act, etc. Instead, Mr. “take the guns first, due process later” caved to public pressure and gave away the bump stock ban for free. Very much in keeping with the rest of his presidency, deciding the policy du jour based on popular opinion at the time rather than following any condistent vision.

      • “Congress at the time was going to pass this evil gun control legislation with enough support to override a veto???”

        By any chance are you mistaking the veto for the filibuster?

        The first one the president does, the second one the upper house of congress (Senate) does.

        You can override a veto, but that’s a lot higher barrier to cross than the filibuster, a 2/3 vote, if I’m not mistaken…

        • Comment was responsive to Hush’s claim that the alternative to Pres. Trump’s action was Congress passing something worse, apparently overlooking that Trump could have simply vetoed any such legislation, and there’s likely no way there’d have been enough support to override it. Very doubtful there was even enough support to pass it at all in the first place.

  4. Supreme Court:
    “Here is what we will do BATFE, we give them back their bumpstocks, they’ll be appeased, and you can continue assassinating gunm owners.”

    • So it’s a give and take kinda deal?
      “Yes, a little bit if give and a whole lot of take.
      It worked with the NRA and it will work with the commoners.”

  5. Agency overreach is common across most all three letter agencies. BLM is one of the worst. Under Barry Soetoro the BLM was going after small family farms that had a water retention ponds on the property. These unconstitutional regulations bankrupted many families. The most egregious IMO is water rights in California for small farmers to save a non-native fish (aka Delta Smelt). Hopefully this S.C. ruling on the A.T.F. will impact all of these lawless agencies.

    • Bankrupting small family farms is the key to power.
      Once small family farms are owned by mega corporations the government has control.

      • Seems to be the ‘Theme’ across Europe also with some push-back by farmers. Hopefully we can rid ourselves of these One World Order (WEF/agenda 2030) types.

        • The third civil war, if not World War, will be fought over water, land, and mineral rights. The only way to assure who wins is to control who has the ability to shoot their way to those rights. We will ALL be Red Flagged in the meantime thanks to SC’s ruling of yesterday.
          Squishy, squishy, squishy.

          • …. as in, it doesn’t get much more ” domestic ” than telling Uncle to take an aeronautical intercourse through a revolving toroid pastry, does it?

        • “Seems to be the ‘Theme’ across Europe also with some push-back by farmers.”

          Like what just happened in the EU elections. Angry people vote, and are motivated to do so. Anger over loose immigration policies was a large driver of what happened last week…

    • CA gets big rain. they hurry it into the Pacific so that little critters don’t get wet. Then they claim part of WY’s water “cause we need water”.

      They cry about fossil fuels, but try to find a hundred square miles of hardcore desert fire solar panels that is not “pristine” and/or “endangered”…

  6. President Trump was NOT playing 4D chess. He did not use an EO, to ban bumpstocks , because he knew it would be easier to overturn at a later date. He wanted to win some points with anti-gun Democrats, relied on the NRA’s counsel that there were only a couple hundred thousand who owned bumpstocks and in their opinion there would be only minimal backlash for the ban. President Trump has admitted as much when asked about the ban in the years since. Not once did Donald J. Trump ever claim that the reason he authorized the ban was so Congress wouldn’t act. Every time asked his reply has been that he consulted with the NRA, they said it was okay, so he ordered it. President Trump is a business man, first and foremost, he saw an opportunity to create some goodwill from the left on a subject the NRA said he was covered on and he took it. President Trump looks at every problem from a business stand point and will most definitely give concessions if he thinks it will help him close a bigger deal. Never doubt that.

    • Exactly, in fact I always thought that DJT would eventually be granted a lifetime Board position by LaPeepee so he could assist in raping what was left of the NRA carcass… too bad your pal had to hit the road, Don.

      • Let’s all be honest here for once, shall we ?
        The only desirable trait that Trump displays is that he is a big, loud, dumbass monkey-wrench thrown into the middle of the Great
        Govt. Machine, quite effectively, if not stopping it, at least slowing it down.
        I can’t imagine any of us ever going out for a beer with the jackass

    • was asked about the nra endorsement of the bam by a lib, simply answered that NRA stands for negotiating rights away.

    • The President Trump was a business Man.
      Yep.
      That’s why I dont get to watch NASCAR when a Golf tournament is playing.
      Gimme back my bullets.

    • Wild it’s armor republic (ar 500) that is getting it moving first but makes sense as it is a relatively large population base to have cut off. At least their newer products seem to work against entry level threats beyond 308. As to that shot spot……I don’t know how they got it any worse than when Troy stopped using it when the hills created an error that put an overwhelming majority of alerts in the black majority sections with active gang affiliation.

  7. There is no evidence (much less proof) that the Las Vegas shooter was using bump-fire stocks.

    The FBI seized all of his weapons and spirited them away, forbidding their examination by anyone from the ATF. And since the perp was killed in the seizure there was no prosecution, ergo they never were entered into evidence,

    For all anyone outside the FBI knows, he might have been using genuine machine guns.they might have been

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