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Appeals court overrules bump stock ban

By Sarah May on
 January 8, 2023

In a blow to Democrats seeking greater restrictions on firearms, a federal appeals court Friday overturned a Trump-era ban on certain types of “bump stocks,” devices used to boost the firing rate of semi-automatic weapons, as The Hill reports.

The prohibition, as the New York Post noted, was enacted in 2018 in the wake of a mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada in which the shooter used guns fitted with bump stocks to kill 58 and injure hundreds of other victims.

Appeals court blocks ban

The bump stock ban implemented by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which has faced challenges in numerous courts, was overturned by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals by a vote of 13-3.

Notably, as the Post reports, the prohibition on bump stocks had already prevailed in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, the 10th Circuit in Denver, as well as the federal circuit court in Washington state.

The 5th Circuit itself had previously upheld the ban as well, but the full court ultimately opted to reconsider the matter in full, holding arguments in the case back on Sept. 13.

Statutory language proves pivotal

The case at issue ultimately turned on the precise language of a federal prohibition on machine guns, namely, the ban's definition of a machine gun as a weapon capable of firing multiple shots “automatically” by virtue of a “single function of the trigger,” as The Hill noted.

Prior to the Las Vegas incident, the ATF drew a distinction between mechanical and non-mechanical bump stock devices, and as such, the former were formally considered to be machine guns, while the latter were not.

The agency changed course in 2018, also classifying non-mechanical bump stocks as prohibited machine guns, asserting that a “single function of the trigger” was equivalent to “a single pull of the trigger.”

In the ATF's estimation, bump stocks permitted a semi-automatic weapon to release multiple shots with a “single pull of the trigger” via the gun's own recoil by resetting its trigger without further “physical manipulation of the trigger” by the person operating it.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, disagreed with that characterization in its Friday opinion, however, finding that the machine gun statute's verbiage dealt only with the trigger's movement, not the shooter's actions.

“Plain reading” emphasized

Writing the lead majority opinion in the case, Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod explained, “A plain reading of the statutory language, paired with close consideration of the mechanics of a semi-automatic firearm, reveals that a bump stock is excluded from the technical definition of 'machinegun' set forth in the Gun Control Act and National Firearms Act.”

“[T]here is no mention of a shooter. The grammatical structure continuously points the reader back to the mechanics of the firearm,” the opinion continued.

“The statute does not care what human input is required to activate the trigger – it cares only whether more than one shot is fired each time the trigger acts,” the court added.

In addition, the court determined that non-mechanical bump stocks are not “self-acting,” and are not rightly deemed “automatic,” given that they require a specific technique to be employed by the shooter.

Judge Stephen Higginson did not agree, writing in a dissenting opinion that the majority's insistence that if a law of this nature is ambiguous, Congress has a duty to rectify the matter is overbroad in this matter, saying, “Under the majority's rule, the defendant wins by default whenever the government fails to prove that a statute unambiguously criminalizes the defendant's conduct.”

Lawyer lauds outcome

Attorney Rich Samp, who argued against the ban, expressed satisfaction in the court's ruling, as Fox News noted, saying, “This case is not about gun control. It is instead about who has the constitutional prerogative to change the criminal law if changes are warranted.”

“The current statute, adopted in 1986, defines 'machinegun' in a manner that does not encompass non-mechanical bump stocks. It is unlawful for a prosecutorial entity like ATF to rewrite existing law without authorization from Congress. Any change in gun-control laws must emanate from Congress,” Samp added.

No comment was immediately provided by a lawyer who argued the case on behalf of the government, according to the Post, and it remains to be seen whether an appeal at the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately be pursued.