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ALERT – SUPREME COURT DECISION – JUNE 14, 2024

The Law Office of Tom Norrid

SAMARITAN PROJECTS LLC

P.O. Box 9244

Springfield, MO 65801-9244

417-236-1179

 

MERRICK B. GARLAND, ATTORNEY GENERAL, ET AL., PETITIONERS v. MICHAEL CARGILL. 2024 U.S. LEXIS 2607

 

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

 

No. 22-976. Argued February 28, 2024 - Decided June 14, 2024

 

The National Firearms Act of 1934 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. 26 USC 5845(b). With a machinegun, a shooter can fire multiple times, or even continuously, by engaging the trigger only once. This capability distinguishes a machinegun from a semiautomatic firearm. With a semiautomatic firearm, the shooter can fire only one time by engaging the trigger. Using a technique called bump firing, shooters can fire semiautomatic firearms at rates approaching those of some machineguns. A shooter who bump fires a rifle uses the firearms recoil to help rapidly manipulate the trigger. Although bump firing does not require any additional equipment, a bump stock is an accessory designed to make the technique easier. A bump stock does [*2]  not alter the basic mechanics of bump firing, and the trigger still must be released and reengaged to fire each additional shot.

For many years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) consistently took the position that semiautomatic rifles equipped with bump stocks were not machineguns under 5845(b). ATF abruptly changed course when a gunman using semiautomatic rifles equipped with bump stocks fired hundreds of rounds into a crowd in Las Vegas, Nevada, killing 58 people and wounding over 500 more. ATF subsequently proposed a rule that would repudiate its previous guidance and amend its regulations to clarify that bump stocks are machineguns. 83 Fed. Reg. 13442. ATFs Rule ordered owners of bump stocks either to destroy or surrender them to ATF to avoid criminal prosecution.

Michael Cargill surrendered two bump stocks to ATF under protest, then filed suit to challenge the Rule under the Administrative Procedure Act. As relevant, Cargill alleged that ATF lacked statutory authority to promulgate the Rule because bump stocks are not machinegun[s] as defined in 5845(b). After a bench trial, the District Court entered judgment for ATF. The Fifth Circuit initially affirmed, but reversed after rehearing enbanc. A majority agreed that 5845(b) is ambiguous as to whether a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock fits the statutory definition of a machinegun and resolved that ambiguity in Cargills favor.

 

Held: ATF exceeded its statutory authority by issuing a Rule that classifies a bump stock as a machinegun under 5845(b). pp. 6-19.

 

(a) A semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not a machinegun as defined by 5845(b) because: (1) it cannot fire more than one shot by a single function of the trigger and (2) even if it could, it would not do so automatically. ATF therefore exceeded its statutory authority by issuing a Rule that classifies bump stocks as machineguns. p. 6.

 

(b) A semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock does not fire more than one shot by a single function of the trigger. The phrase function of the trigger refers to the mode of action by which the trigger activates the firing mechanism. No one disputes that a semiautomatic rifle without a bump stock is not a machinegun because a shooter must release and reset the trigger between every shot. And, any subsequent shot fired after the trigger has been released and reset is the result of a separate and distinct function of the trigger. Nothing changes when a semi-automatic rifle is equipped with a bump stock. Between every shot, the shooter must release pressure from the trigger and allow it to reset before reengaging the trigger for another shot. A bump stock merely reduces the amount of time that elapses between separate functions of the trigger.

 

ATF argues that a shooter using a bump stock must pull the trigger only one time to initiate a bump-firing sequence of multiple shots. This initial trigger pull sets off a sequence fire, recoil, bump, fire that allows the weapon to continue firing without additional physical manipulation of the trigger by the shooter. This argument rests on the mistaken premise that there is a difference between the shooter flexing his finger to pull the trigger and pushing the firearm forward to bump the trigger against his stationary trigger. Moreover, ATFs position is logically inconsistent because its reasoning would also mean that a semiautomatic rifle without a bump stock is capable of firing more than one shot by a single function of the trigger. Yet, ATF agrees that is not the case. ATFs argument is thus at odds with itself. pp. 7-14.

 

(c) Even if a semiautomatic rifle with  a bump stock could fire more than one shot by a single function of the trigger, it would not do so automatically. Section 5845(b) specifies the precise action that must automatically cause a weapon to fire more than one shot a single function of the trigger. If something more than a single function of the trigger is required to fire multiple shots, the weapon does not satisfy the statutory definition. Firing multiple shots using a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock requires more than a single function of the trigger. A shooter must maintain forward pressure on the rifles front grip with his non-trigger hand. Without this ongoing manual input, a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock will not fire multiple shots.

 

ATF counters that machineguns also require continuous manual input from a shooter: The shooter must both engage the trigger and keep it pressed down to continue shooting. ATF argues there is no meaningful difference between holding down the trigger of a traditional machinegun and maintaining forward pressure on the front grip of a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock. This argument ignores that Congress defined a machinegun by what happens automatically by a single function of the trigger.  Simply pressing and holding the trigger down on a fully automatic rifle is not manual input in addition to a triggers function. By contrast, pushing forward on the front grip of a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not part of functioning the trigger.

 

Moreover, a semiautomatic rifle with a bump stock is indistinguishable from the Ithaca Model 37 shotgun, a weapon the ATF concedes cannot fire multiple shots automatically. ATF responds that a shooter is less physically involved with operating a bump-stock equipped rifle than operating the Model 37. It explains that once a shooter pulls the rifles trigger a single time, the bump stock harnesses the firearms recoil energy in a continuous back-and-forth cycle that allows the shooter to attain continuous firing. But, even if one aspect of a weapons operation could be seen as automatic, that would not mean the weapon shoots . . . automatically more than one shot . . . by a single function of the trigger. 5845(b) (emphasis added). pp. 14-17.

 

(d) Abandoning the text, ATF attempts to shore up its position by relying on the presumption against ineffectiveness. That presumption weighs against interpretations of a statute that would rende[r] the law in a great measure nugatory, and enable offenders to elude its provisions in the most easy manner. The Emily, 9 Wheat. 381, 389. In ATFs view, Congress restricted machineguns because they eliminate the manual movements that a shooter would otherwise need to make in order to fire continuously at a high rate of fire, as bump stocks do. Brief for Petitioners 40. So, ATF reasons, concluding that bump stocks are lawful simply because the [trigger] moves back and forth . . . would exalt artifice above reality and enable evasion of the federal machinegun ban. Id., at 41-42. The presumption against ineffectiveness cannot do the work that ATF asks of it. Interpreting 5845(b) to exclude semiautomatic rifles equipped with bump stocks comes nowhere close to making the statute useless. pp. 17-19.

 

Thomas, J. delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, JJ., joined. Alito, J., filed a concurring opinion. Sotomayor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Kagan and Jackson, JJ., joined.

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