On Thursday, a panel of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that a ban on bump stocks as implemented by the Trump administration is unconstitutional and putting the executive branch on notice about the limits of their role in the legal process.
Under the Trump administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) declared that bump stocks classify a weapon as a machine gun and criminalized possession of the attachment. Owners were required to turn over their bump stocks or destroy them.
Gun Owners of America (GOA) filed a motion for an injunction to halt the enforcement of the rule, but the motion was denied by a federal district court judge, who ruled that the ban warranted a Chevron deference. The Chevron deference says that a court “may not substitute its own opinion in the place of a reasonable interpretation made by an administrative agency.”
In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the Sixth Circuit reversed that decision, stating that an injunction should have been granted to prevent enforcement of ATF’s ban on bump stocks.
Senior U.S. Sixth Circuit Judge Alice Batchelder and Judge Eric Murphy ruled that the Chevron deference did not apply, referencing the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Apel, which said: “We have never held that the government’s reading of a criminal statute is entitled to any deference.”
In writing the majority opinion, Batchelder warned against administrative agencies making criminal law, saying, “This case rests as much on who determines the statute’s meaning as it does on what the statute means.”
“There is great risk if the responsibility of making moral condemnations is assigned to bureaucrats in the nation’s capital who are physically, and often culturally, distant from the rest of the country. Federal criminal laws are not administrative edicts handed down upon the masses as if the administrators were God delivering the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.”
Batchelder continued, “It is for the judiciary to ‘say what the law is’…and this remains equally, if not especially, true for criminal laws…. It is not the role of the executive — particularly the unelected administrative state — to dictate to the public what is right and what is wrong.”
Regarding whether adding a bump stock to a weapon makes it a machine gun, Batchelder wrote, “A bump stock may change how the pull of the trigger is accomplished, but it does not change the fact that the semiautomatic firearm shoots only one shot for each pull of the trigger. With or without a bump stock, a semiautomatic firearm is capable of firing only a single shot for each pull of the trigger.”
Dissenting U.S. Circuit Judge Helene White argued that the Chevron deference should be applied. She wrote, “The majority fails to account for the vast regulatory frameworks created by Congress, which are replete with highly technical and complex regulations that may carry criminal punishments.”
While bump stocks are the object involved in this case and both sides of the gun control debate will argue over their legality, the biggest takeaway from this decision is the rebuke of executive overreach. An ever-expanding administrative state has become a hydra-headed monster, issuing decrees on everything from environmental regulations to guns.
It is true that the American people cannot vote for every position in the federal government, but a behemothian government filled with countless unelected bureaucrats making laws is not the design of the founders. In this case, an executive administration unilaterally criminalized the possession of an existing and legal attachment, essentially making law-abiding citizens criminals.
This decision could guard against future overreach by the administrative state, particularly in a Biden administration that is seeking to leverage executive orders to take radical steps on various issues including gun control. It is important to curb executive power to ensure that each branch of government is subject to the constitutionally prescribed checks and balances. That can’t happen if one branch keeps taking over the functions and responsibilities of the other two.