By Jack Phillips
A U.S. military court ruled that bump stocks, or devices that can increase the rate of fire in some semi-automatic firearms, are not machine guns despite the federal government in 2018 having issued the rule.
The U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals on Sept. 9, in the case of U.S. v. Ali Alkazahg, said that the 2018 order that “directed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives [ATF] to issue a new interpretation of a rule—that contradicted the ATF’s previous interpretation—governing legislation from the 1930s.”
“This Executive-Branch change in statutory interpretation aimed to outlaw bump stocks prospectively, without a change in existing statutes,” the court ruled, suggesting that the ATF bypassed Congress by creating a law when only Congress has that power under the Constitution.
In the case, Akazahg, a Marine Corps private, was convicted of possessing two machine guns, which were actually bump stocks, in violation of Articles 83, 107, and 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Lawyers for the Marine argued that bump stocks didn’t meet the definition of machine guns.
The court ultimately agreed with Akazahg’s lawyers, issuing a unanimous ruling.
“In 1986, Congress passed the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act [FOPA], banning possession of machine guns not owned before 1986,” the judges wrote. “FOPA also banned any parts, to include frames and receivers, which were part of a machine gun or were designed for converting a weapon into a machine gun.”
It added, “Due to having a bump stock, Appellant was charged under the statute which states that a machine gun 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.’” But they said that a bump stock doesn’t meet that definition.
In late 2018, then-acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker amended an ATF rule that determined bump stocks fall within the definition of being a machine gun under federal law.
“Such devices allow a shooter of a semiautomatic firearm to initiate a continuous firing cycle with a single pull of the trigger,” says the ATF’s website on the rule. It was established after the mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017, in which a gunman allegedly used semiautomatic rifles with bump stocks to kill 58 people.
But in March 2021, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the ban on bump stocks, disagreeing with the ATF’s interpretation of the law. Despite the court order, the ATF’s website still characterizes the devices as machine guns.
“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,” stated Judges Alice Batchelder and Eric Murphy of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who wrote the 2-1 majority opinion. “Granting the executive the right both to determine a criminal statute’s meaning and to enforce that same criminal statute poses a severe risk to individual liberty,” they noted.
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