A federal appeals court ruled against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) bump stock ban and confiscation order on Thursday.
The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the ATF improperly redefined bump stocks as machine guns in 2018, a move that effectively banned the devices in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting that killed dozens. The court ruled the ATF could not redefine the term without new legislation passed by Congress. The majority found bump stocks do not fit under the federal definition of a machine gun.
"We further hold that a bump stock cannot be classified as a machine gun because a bump stock does not enable a semiautomatic firearm to fire more than one shot each time the trigger is pulled," the court said in the ruling.
The ruling represents the first major win for gun-rights activists in the years-long fight over the bump stock ban. It is the first time an appeals court has ruled against the ban and sets up a showdown that could end up at the Supreme Court.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, called the win an "important milestone" in defeating the ban. He said his group filed the case alongside Gun Owners of America, the Gun Owners Foundation, and three individual plaintiffs because the ATF redefining what is effectively a plastic stock as a functioning machine gun was a "fantasy."
"We had to have that victory," Van Cleave said. "Somebody had to put a stop on the sequence of events that made no sense. We could not let that stand."
Under direction from then-president Donald Trump, the ATF reversed itself on the legality of bump stocks, which assist a shooter in making individual pulls of the trigger more quickly. The agency had previously ruled the devices do not fall under machine gun regulations in the National Firearms Act of 1934. The law defines machine guns as firearms that continually fire after a "single function of the trigger;" bump stock-equipped semi-automatic guns require the trigger to be pulled before each shot. The ATF decided the devices should be regulated as machine guns.
The agency's reversal required that all bump stocks be registered with the federal government in order to be legal. But the ATF also ruled the devices were always machine guns and should have been registered when initially purchased. As a result, it became impossible to register the devices under the ATF's new determination, and owners either had to turn them in, destroy them, or face potential federal felony charges if caught with them.
Since federal courts—including the Supreme Court—declined to issue stays against the ban before it went into effect in 2019, Van Cleave said much of the damage from the ban has already been done. There is no estimate for how many people turned in or destroyed their bump stocks but several manufacturers had to destroy their products and were subsequently bankrupted.
Van Cleave said the coalition of gun groups is continuing to fight the case to combat the possibility of similar actions from the ATF in the future. He said it is "clear that the government was making up an issue out of whole cloth" and the groups do not want to see a repeat. They are planning for an eventual fight at the highest level.
"We'd like to put it on the Supreme Court," Van Cleave said.
The Biden administration did not respond to a request for comment on the decision. The case will now be sent back down to the lower court with orders to redo the trial.