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Gun Owners of America v. Garland: Defending ATF authority to ban bump stock technology

Case Information: Gun Owners of America, Inc., et al. v. Garland, No. 19-1298 (6th Cir. brief filed September 1, 2021)

At Issue: Congress banned machine guns in 1986. However, the gun industry developed workarounds designed to evade regulation under the machine gun ban. Bump stocks are one such device used to convert semi-automatic rifles into machine guns. After a shooter in Las Vegas used bump stock technology to kill 60 people and injure hundreds more, ATF issued a rule classifying bump stock technology as a banned machine gun. Plaintiffs argue that ATF’s rule violates the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. However, under Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. NRDC, courts must give deference to an administering agency’s interpretation of their own rule. Plaintiffs argue that the court should not grant deference here because these gun safety laws carry criminal penalties.

Our Brief: In a joint brief filed with Everytown for Gun Safety and Brady, we argued in support of ATF’s decision to classify bump stock technology as banned machine guns, and in favor of deference to ATF’s interpretation of the machine gun ban. Bump stocks exist solely to convert semi-automatic rifles into machineguns by automating the process of shooting and increasing the rate of fire. This increased speed generally sacrifices accuracy—negating any legitimate civilian use for it. In the plain language of the statute, bump stocks allow a “single function of the trigger” to initiate “automatically” “more than one shot.” This makes them functionally identical to—and just as dangerous as—the machine guns banned by Congress. 

We further argued that ATF’s interpretation should also be upheld as a routine application of Chevron deference. Congress expressly delegated rulemaking authority to ATF in passing the National Firearms Act and the Gun Control Act. The criminal penalties for some of these laws do not warrant any change in this authority. The Supreme Court, in Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter of Communities for a Great Oregon, already foreclosed Appellants’ argument that Chevron cannot apply to a facial challenge to ATF’s prospective rule. Moreover, ATF’s technical expertise is essential to interpreting gun laws, making it more suitable for this task than the courts. In the alternative, we argue that even if the Court does not defer to ATF under Chevron, ATF’s interpretation would still apply  under the lesser deferential standard announced in Skidmore v. Swift & Co.

Read the full text of our amicus brief here.

Update: On December 3, 2021, an en banc panel of the Sixth Circuit upheld ATF’s bump stock rule. All other circuit courts to consider this issue have also upheld ATF’s bump stock rule.