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    Statutory Interpretation or Gun Control? How a Supreme Court Decision May Change the Meaning of a “Machinegun”

    Stephanie Blanco
    By Stephanie Blanco   |   Staff Editor


    Pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 5845(b), a machinegun is “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.”[i] The definition also includes the “frame or receiver of any such weapon, any part designed and intended solely and exclusively, or combination of parts designed and intended, for use in converting a weapon into a machinegun.”[ii] However, do bump stocks, attachments that enable semiautomatic rifles to fire faster, fall under the definition of a machinegun? That is the question that the Supreme Court has been called to answer.

    For over a decade, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (“ATF”) has held that bump stocks do not fall under the statutory definition of a machinegun. This interpretation from the ATF quickly changed after the fatal Las Vegas shooting on October 1, 2017, when a gunman used bump stocks that fired 1,000 rounds and killed 60 people. Responding to this tragic incident, the ATF reclassified bump stocks as machineguns under federal law.[iii] This new regulation also required owners of bump-stock-type devices to relinquish ownership of said devices or face criminal liability.[iv] As a result,  Michael Cargill (“Mr. Cargill”), a previous owner of bump stocks, filed suit against the ATF in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, claiming that ATF exceeded its authority in defining bump stocks as machineguns under 26 U.S.C. § 5845(b). The district court ruled in favor of the government, holding that the interpretation of the words “single function of the trigger” and “automatically” intended to include bump stocks within the meaning of the definition of a machinegun.[v]

    Yet, federal appellate courts that have reviewed preliminary injunction motions relating to the definition of a machinegun are divided as to whether the definition’s statutory interpretation includes bump stocks.[vi] In fact, on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit sitting en banc reversed the district court’s decision and ruled that a plain reading of the statutory definition, coupled with the mechanical structure of a semi-automatic firearm, suggests that bump stocks are not included in the technical definition of “machinegun” under the  Gun Control Act and National Firearms Act.[vii] The Fifth Circuit also applied the rule of lenity that called for an interpretation of the ambiguous statutory language in a way that is most favorable to Mr. Cargill.[viii]

    To resolve the division amongst the circuit courts, the Supreme Court will soon decide whether “a bump stock device is a ’machinegun’ as defined in 26 U.S.C. § 5845(b).”[ix] This decision from the Supreme Court may alter the rules, regulations, and rights concerning machine gun ownership and alteration. Specifically, if the Supreme Court includes bump stock devices under the statutorily defined term of a machinegun, bump stocks would continue to be subjected to the same restrictions, regulations, and penalties applied to machine guns, and bump stock owners would be required to comply with these regulations or face criminal liability. Additionally, this decision may lead lawmakers to propose legislation that furthers restrictions on similar devices that simulate automatic fire.

    While Mr. Cargill’s attorneys have emphasized that the case does not implicate issues surrounding the Second Amendment, this ruling may still spark constitutional issues on whether classifying bump stocks as machineguns infringes on an individual’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.[x]  In particular, those who oppose regulating bump stock devices as machineguns may argue that the classification unfairly restricts an individual’s ability to freely use firearm accessories, a right that is believed to be guaranteed by the Second Amendment. Moreover, including bump stocks within the definition of a machinegun may set a precedent for further regulation of firearm accessories, leading to additional restrictions on other types of accessories or firearms in the future and gradually stripping away Second Amendment gun rights. Finally, some may claim that bump stock devices should not be considered distinct arms subject to regulation and that this classification may alter the Second Amendment’s interpretation of “arms.”

    On the other hand, if the Supreme Court excludes bump stocks from the definition of a machinegun under 26 U.S.C. § 5845(b), bump stocks may not be subjected to regulations and restrictions currently imposed on machine guns, leading to a potential increase in the availability and usage of bump stock devices. The current existing restrictions regulating bump stocks established by the ATF may possibly be revised or, in the alternative, reversed based on the Supreme Court’s potential affirmative ruling. In this instance, Congress may still enact legislation that restricts bump stock devices alone. Without federal classification of bump stocks as machineguns, local and state governments may also have the authority to enact their own regulations restricting the use and sale of bump stock devices.

    In all, the Supreme Court’s future ruling in deciding whether bump stocks are machineguns under 26 U.S.C. § 5845(b) will impact the rights and regulations concerning machinegun ownership and further the ongoing debate on the constitutionality of gun control.





    [i] 26 U.S.C. § 5845(b).

    [ii] Id.

    [iii] See 27 C.F.R. § 447.11(b).

    [iv] See id.

    [v] Cargill v. Barr, 502 F. Supp. 3d 1163, 1199 (W.D. Tex. 2020), aff’d sub nom. Cargill v. Garland, 20 F.4th 1004 (5th Cir. 2021), reh’g en banc granted, opinion vacated, 37 F.4th 1091 (5th Cir. 2022), and on reh’g en banc, 57 F.4th 447 (5th Cir. 2023), and rev’d and remanded sub nom. Cargill v. Garland, 57 F.4th 447 (5th Cir. 2023).

    [vi] See Cargill v. Garland, 57 F.4th 447, 457 (5th Cir. 2023), cert. granted, 144 S. Ct. 374 (2023) (recognizing that the issue of whether bump stocks are machineguns under the statutory definition “engendered great disagreement” among the D.C. Circuit, the Tenth Circuit, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals).

    [vii] See id. at 451 (ruling that a bump stock is not a machinegun under the Gun Control Act and National Firearms Act because the mechanical definition of a machinegun does not encompass a non-mechanical bump stock).

    [viii] See id. at 471 (finding that the statutory definition of a machinegun is ambiguous, compelling the court to apply the rule of lenity to construe the definition in Mr. Cargill’s favor).

    [ix] See Garland v. Cargill, 144 S. Ct. 374 (2023).

    [x] John Fritze, Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Trump-Era Ban on Bump Stocks in a Major Gun Control Case, ABC 7, (Feb. 28, 2024, 12:10 PM), (explaining how Mr. Cargill’s attorneys believe that the case does not implicate the Second Amendment, but rather tasks the Supreme Court to decide the meaning of the term “machinegun” under federal law).

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