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High court rejects push to lift ban on bump stocks

The justices declined to hear a pair of cases challenging the legality of a ban on rapid-fire gun attachments.

(CN) — Gun rights enthusiasts expressed disappointment Monday after the Supreme Court declined to hear cases that challenged the legality of a Trump-era ban on bump stocks, which enable semiautomatic weapons to fire continuously.

The ban was issued in 2018, a year after the deadliest mass shooting in United States history took place in Las Vegas. Stephen Paddock, using a bump stock attachment on his assault rifles, fired over 1,000 rounds of ammunition, killing 60 people and injuring nearly 500 in around 10 minutes. 

"We are faithfully following President Trump’s leadership by making clear that bump stocks, which turn semi automatics into machine guns, are illegal, and we will continue to take illegal guns off of our streets," then-acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker said when announcing the rule in December 2018.

The rule took effect in 2019 after the Supreme Court declined to block it. It clarified that the definition of "machine gun” in the Gun Control Act and National Firearms Act includes bump-stock-type devices – those "that allow a semiautomatic firearm to shoot more than one shot with a single pull of the trigger by harnessing the recoil energy of the semiautomatic firearm to which it is affixed so that the trigger resets and continues firing without additional physical manipulation of the trigger by the shooter," according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. 

But the Virginia Citizens Defense League disputes that definition.

“If you’re a gun owner you realize that a bump stock is not converting a gun to a machine gun,” said Philip Van Cleave, the group's president, in a phone interview. “It’s an insult to everybody's intelligence who knows about guns.” 

An appeal by a firearm instructor, W. Clark Aposhian, asked the Supreme Court not to defer to federal agencies, arguing they do not have the authority to issue such a ban. Aposhian lost his case at the Denver-based 10th Circuit in 2020.

The gun rights lobbying group Gun Owners of America Inc., along with the Gun Owners Foundation and Virginia Citizens Defense League, also filed an appeal raising the same issues after a split Sixth Circuit decision last year resulted in the reinstatement of a ruling in the government's favor.

“We recognized it as a gross overstep of the ATF,” Van Cleave said of the ban. “They had no authority to Congress to classify a bump stock as a machine gun.” 

Aposhian’s attorneys cited Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, a 1984 decision which found that a court may not substitute its own opinion in the place of a reasonable interpretation made by an administrative agency.

 “Whether Chevron deference applies here is likely outcome determinative,” Aposhian’s attorneys wrote in their petition to the Supreme Court. “In rejecting Petitioner’s claim that ATF improperly construed § 5845(b), the Tenth Circuit did not address whether ATF’s construction was the best reading of the statute.”

In Aposhian's case, the 10th Circuit panel deferred to the ATF’s reading of the law in a ruling that said "the statutory definition of ‘machinegun’ is ambiguous, and ATF’s interpretation is reasonable.”

In the Sixth Circuit case, the en banc court ruled 8-8 on the issue of whether the government is entitled to Chevron deference in the interpretation of a criminal statute.

Attorneys for Gun Owners of America argued in their petition to the Supreme Court that classifying a bump stock as a machine gun was manipulative. 

“Any purported statutory ambiguity is of recent vintage, interjected by ATF’s new and contorted manipulation of the English language to make a type of rifle stock — a 'bump stock' — fit into the statutory definition of a 'machine gun,'" the petition states.

The Supreme Court did not give an explanation for its decision not to hear the appeals.

“The implications of redefining a bump stock, redefining a firearm accessory and calling it a machine gun because it was capable of bump fire sets a horrible precedent,” said Aidan Johnston, director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America, in a phone interview. “We are not going to stop defending our members rights because of one setback or one court that refuses to get involved.”

Jim Kessler, executive vice president of policy for Third Way, a think tank that supports stricter gun control, said in a statement that "we need to be thankful anytime the Supreme Court upholds any gun law.”

“We are in a new era on guns where nearly every law, no matter how necessary or reasonable, could be under a microscope with this far-right Supreme Court,” Kessler said.

Counsel for Aposhian and the Department of Justice were not available for comment Monday afternoon.

Van Cleave said a similar case is soon to be heard in the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit.

“The issue isn’t dead but this particular case is,” he said. 

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