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Sixth Circuit Hears Debate Over Bump Stocks

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 5: A bump stock device, (left) that fits on a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing speed, making it similar to a fully automatic rifle, is shown next to a AK-47 semi-automatic rifle, (right) at a gun store on October 5, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
By Laura Temme, Esq. on December 20, 2019

A Sixth Circuit panel heard arguments from a prominent gun rights group last week regarding changes to the statutory definition of "machine gun."

Gun Owners of America filed for a preliminary injunction this spring to block the rule from being enforced. However, the U.S. District Court judge who heard the case denied the injunction, finding the plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on the merits.

ATF Changes the Rules on Bump Stocks

Last year, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) added rapid-fire attachments commonly known as "bump stocks" to the rules prohibiting machine guns. The amended rule gave owners of bump stocks until March 26, 2019, to dispose of them, after which possessing one could lead to a felony conviction. The change came shortly after a gunman in Las Vegas employed bump stocks to fire over one thousand rounds into a crowd at a music festival - killing 58 and injuring several hundred.

As amended, the rule defines a "machine gun" as any weapon that shoots "automatically more than one shot without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger." Under rules dating back to Prohibition, members of the public are prohibited from possessing a machine gun manufactured after 1986.

What Does "Automatic" Mean?

Bump stocks replace the standard stock of a rifle with the recoil mechanism of a semiautomatic weapon, creating a back-and-forth sequence that increases the rate of fire to nearly match a fully automatic weapon. However, the parties dispute whether the forward pressure a shooter must exert on the bump stock means it does or does not shoot "automatically" within the statute.

The District Court observed that putting forward pressure on the barrel is not manual reloading any more than continued pressure on the trigger of an automatic weapon is. Moreover, the court found that the plaintiffs did not establish that ATF's interpretation exceeds the agency's statutory authority.

At oral arguments last week, counsel for Gun Owners of America argued that the statute is not ambiguous, and even if it was, it wouldn't be ATF's job to resolve that ambiguity. In addition, they focused on the words "by a single function of the trigger," arguing that a bump stock does not allow for rapid-fire by a single trigger pull.

The government argued that bump stocks create a "self-regulating cycle" that fits within the statute's definition of automatically firing more than one shot. Moreover, they contend that the statute does not require that the gun fire "automatically" without physical input from the shooter.

Whether you see the rule as necessary regulation or an agency overstep, there's no doubt the appellate court's decision will be one to watch. 

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