Legal Issues

U.S. Appeals Court Bumps the Bump Stock Ban

Bump stock on an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle

I don’t want to “bury the lead,” so… The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the Trump-era bump-stock ban is a violation of federal law. However, while that is a legal victory for Second Amendment advocates, it does not automatically make bump stocks legal. Let’s back up and look at what led up to the latest ruling on bump stocks to better understand it.

Bump stocks were controversial from the beginning. However, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’ (BATFE or ATF) Firearms and Ammunition Technology Division (FATD) reviewed the bump-stock design and approved it. The FATD found that the addition of a bump stock to a firearm did not meet the definition of a machine gun. By definition, a machine gun is capable of firing multiple rounds from a single activation of the trigger.

Bump stock, left profile
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled against the ATF’s Bump Stock ban.

On the other hand, a bump stock is a unit that replaces the stock and pistol grip of a rifle. The device is operated by the recoil of a shot being fired and “slides.” The sliding of the bump stock causes the trigger to reset. After reset, continuing through the sliding motion, the pressure from the trigger finger “pulls” the trigger and fires another shot. The cycle then repeats until the pressure is released or the gun runs out of ammunition.

Therefore, with a bump stock, only one round is fired with each activation of trigger. That was the conclusion of the FATD and the reason the ATF’s final ruling held that the addition of the bump stock did not constitute a modification that would convert a firearm to a machine gun.

With bumps stocks being ruled legal and approved for sale, thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps 1 million+ were sold — I couldn’t say, but the number was significant. Gun owners and ammunition manufacturers celebrated. Many primers were sacrificed as magazines were drained at gun ranges.

Then, in 2019 there was a high-profile shooting at a concert outside a casino in Las Vegas. It was reported that multiple firearms were recovered and at least some were equipped with a bump stock. President Trump responded to the political pressure and emotion after such an event.

Sadly, President Trump failed to support the rights of law-abiding gun owners due to the actions of a single murderer. Instead, he asked the ATF to reclassify bump stocks as machine guns. The ATF complied.

The ATF used something called Chevron deference (essentially declaring the original ruling to have been ambiguous) to reclassify bump stocks as machine guns. With the rules change, consumers were not compensated for the units they legally purchased. Instead, they were ordered to surrender the units or destroy them. I’m not sure how many were manufactured and sold, but reportedly, very few were surrendered to law enforcement. I guess everyone else decided to personally destroy the units.

The government was, however, serious. The fine for selling or possessing a bump stock was up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000 — for each violation. So, do not get stupid and start flashing a bump stock around the range or on social media — should you know where to get your hands on one.

Is a Bump Stock an Advantage?

Is a bump stock really that much of advantage? Perhaps not — if you are Jerry.

Bump Stocks: Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

Second Amendment advocates have challenged the ban in multiple courts. The 13-3 ruling at the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was the latest challenge to be heard. Likely, it will be decided by the Supreme Court, but it could be decided by Congress as well. I’ll get to that later in the story. For now, the case has been kicked back to the hands of a lower court, which is why bump stocks are not legal after the ruling.

To be clear, the latest ruling from the Fifth Circuit is not based on the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. Instead, it is based on the argument that by the ATF’s own definition, bump stocks did not fall under the definition of a machine gun.

According to court records:

Bump stocks harness the recoil energy of a semi-automatic firearm so that a trigger “resets and continues firing without additional physical manipulation of the trigger by the shooter,” according to the ATF. A shooter must maintain constant forward pressure on the weapon with the non-shooting hand, and constant pressure on the trigger with the trigger finger.

The ATF, under the Biden Administration, disagrees and claims bump stocks are properly classified as machine guns.

According to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod wrote for majority opinion:

“A plain reading of the statutory language, paired with close consideration of the mechanics of a semi-automatic firearm, reveals that a bump stock is excluded from the technical definition of ‘machine gun’ as set forth in the Gun Control Act and National Firearms Act.”

~Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod

With the Court finding that the definition of a machine gun, which is set out in two different federal statutes, “…does not apply to bump stocks,” it seems to be as simple as 1+2=3.

  1. The trigger functions multiple times when a bump stock is used.
  2. ATF language in the law defines a machine gun as a firearm that fires multiple times with a “single function of the trigger.”
  3. Therefore, bump stock-equipped firearms do not qualify as machine guns under federal law.

Congress As the Decider

With the majority of Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreeing the law is ambiguous (not meeting the definition of a machine gun), Congress may be the final decider via a court doctrine known as “lenity.”

The motivating purpose of lenity is to provide adequate notice to defendants (due process) and reinforce the notion that only the legislature has the power to define what conduct is criminal and what conduct is not (separation of powers). Lenity seems to be easy to define but difficult to apply. The main point of lenity is that it is a rule of statutory construction that requires a court to resolve statutory ambiguity in favor of a criminal defendant (bump stock owners) or to strictly construe the statute against the state (ATF).

With the word salad “clarifying” lenity, I do not have faith in Congress to take this on and figure it out. I’ll wait and see whether the Supreme Court hears the case. How about you? Share your take on how the case will be decided in the comment section.

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Comments (27)

  1. My old bump stock ruined my barrel on my old Stag M1 A1. Civilian barrels 15 years ago were not designed for heavy rapid fire use. My barrel warped after 300 rounds! I did like the faster rate of fire, ammo was much cheaper and easier to aquire. Individual responsibility used to be part of America, now prevention has destroyed the actions of the individual. Bans and laws are only as good as thoughs that abide by them. The Volstagdt Act was overturned due to America’s unwillingness to follow it. If no one abides, then the laws are useless. We, as Americans, need to remember that we control our liberties and freedom’s not the politicians 😉

  2. Well i dont own one of these fancy bump stovck thingies, but i have always felt if someone wants one ,they should be permitted to own one! As it states ,as well as the ATF stated at one point it is “NOT” a Machinegun!!! So for gun controllers ,they can kiss my arse! I dont care what they make illegal if they go against our Constitution or Bill Of Rights then “they” are the criminals and “not” the bump stock owners!!! These criminal politicians and at times, criminal judges need to see “justice” not the American people! The politicians and judges trying to curtail our “GOD” given rights should be imprisoned!!! PERIOD!!!!!!!!

  3. @joe w ruffer
    You mean some folks still read that thing?
    Pffft… if you’re waiting on compensation for anything you destroyed yourself to avoid charges on a BS ruling, good luck. Better have one hell of a Constitutional Lawyer.
    I trashed my knee in the ARMY AIRBORNE over 20 years ago but they won’t pay to fix it because they “can’t find” the paperwork… yeah… bet they could. I still work but denied disablity because I still work part time as best I can. Don’t qualify for any health insurance help because I’m “too poor”… WTF?
    Nothing like moving at the speed of government. 🤦🏼‍♂️

  4. From the beginning I realized that, while the ATF decision was not (correct) legal, the Government could eventually make Bump Stocks illegal through the legislative process. So in my official letter to ATF during the comment period I focused on the 5th Amendment which protects citizens from a government taking of property without just compensation. There was no response from ATF other than “comment received”.
    So I turned mine in to the local office of ATF and asked for and got a receipt for them.

    Waiting on my just compensation.

  5. Never quite understood the whole point of a giggle switch. Drove me nuts… HOWEVER you wanna piss away ammo go for it, because it’s our RIGHT per the Second Amendment.
    Spray and pray if that’s your thing. Now go throw hand grenades at each other.

  6. Saddly the un-USA invades other Countries worldwide in the name of spreading Democracy and Persecutes the Citizens providing the Tax Money for the INVASIONS. Biggest Farce this World will Ever know are Politicians confused going to the toilet. FJB

  7. Let’s think about this! They (Trump) banned bump stocks, in calif they ban mags over 10, they ban everything and anything they can to control your rights as a law bidding tax paying AMERICANS, I feel that if I choose to defend my country (3 tours ) I should be able to buy , use , and add anything to my firearm that I dam well please. The End…

  8. The banter about common sense or need is irrelevant. Every member of the government takes an oath.
    “ I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same”

    The 2A says shall not be infringed.

    “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Thomas Jefferson

  9. Personally, I did not care for the bump stocks. But I did have I four of them for sale in my shop, which were destroyed according to the illegal ATF ruling. Seems that we should be able to seek reimbursement for the destroyed items if nothing else!

  10. As a former bumpstock owner, it’s sickening to see fellow gun owners knocking these devices as “unreasonable” and “useless.” The joy of shooting is being destroyed by people like this.

    If you are in support of any alphabet agency, just go turn your weapons in, they’re of no use to you anymore.

  11. whoever said they that trump only did it to protect citizens is a traitor to this country, just like trump. it was unconstitutional as is all gun laws. anyone that supports trump is a brain washed sheep. the only reason that you should vote for trump is if he is better than the other option, which for now he is. the guy that says he is ok that trump did it is a true definition of a cult trump supporter. he would have voted for hitler with that logic.

  12. Need is moot! The 1st sentence of the 2A defines the types of “arms” that are protected. They are the types of arms expected to be carried by a milita member. Milita are basically light infantry. So, bayonets would be protected, pistols, M16/Ak style full auto weapons amoung others. This will upset the anti-gunners but 2A is very clear on this issue.

  13. Paper pushing remf? First, I was both combat support and combat arms. Second, and more importantly, when you attack the person rather than their arguments, it looks pretty silly.

    If you actually read my entire comments, you’ll see that I was largely just having a conversation. Ultimately, I drew the conclusion that once you open the door to the government restricting one thing (bump stock) about “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms”, then it likely opens the door to other restrictions which I do not want.

  14. I guess I don’t have an objection to some poor fool pissing away $1000 of ammo in a hour splintering a siluhwet target, but as we saw in Las Vegas, in the wrong hands, the results are catastrophic. I feel like as gun owners, we need to get real and recognize that we have allowed pretty unrestricted access to some weapons of remarkable power and destructive potential. Even as an owner of modern sporting rifles (such as ARsand AKs) it seem reasonable to restrict access and ownership to those of us with squeaky clean records and the emotional maturity to use these weapons responsibly. Do you really think everyone over 18 years of age who wants one should be able to buy an AR? I doubt I am the only one who has encountered a dicy kid with too much firepower at the range or in the woods. When it come to these weapons, I believe ownership should be an earned privilege , not a right. Personally, I welcome some sense-able constraints.

  15. I am a HUGE Trump supporter, AND 2A believer, and also a common sense card holder, these bump stocks have ZERO logical reasoning. I completely agree with Kirk H above… he hit it right on the head… and sorry MIKE, Trump did it for the safety of the American Citizens… NOT to be any sort of dictator… common sense is how we need to be looking at this… no other way…

  16. USA is not even in the top 10.

    Countries with the Highest Rates of Violent Gun Death (Homicides) per 100k residents in 2019
    El Salvador — 36.78
    Venezuela — 33.27
    Guatemala — 29.06
    Colombia — 26.36
    Brazil — 21.93
    Bahamas — 21.52
    Honduras — 20.15
    U.S. Virgin Islands — 19.40
    Puerto Rico — 18.14
    Mexico — 16.41

  17. Nobody needs a bump stock. It’s just a way of wasting more ammunition faster. That being said, I also don’t want any lawmaker telling us what we do or don’t need. Ownership of guns is the only thing between us and total anarchy and tyranny. The ATF needs to stop trying to make new laws (not their job) and enforce the ones we already have.

  18. I reject the notion that anyone needs to prove “need” for anything. I also reject the notion that having fun with a firearm requires a certain position or status.

    Private citizens can own machine guns and fully automatic firearms. They are not “Banned” per se. They are extremely heavily regulated is all.

    Many folks want to fire full auto. It is fun. I’ve been to a range where I could fire full auto and was able to do so. It was a Thompson and yes, it was awesome fun.

    This is the entire failure of the argument of what anyone needs as a firearm. If you are being safe with it, not doing something illegal, not causing problems; then it should be left alone. Punish the lawbreaker only.

    So, I am glad the court of Appeals saw the light. Now, if the lower court or Congress can do the same. Probably not.

  19. What’s your problem with civilians owning machine guns? As a former Army O, you should be ashamed of yourself. Also, if you think firing 5.56 and .50 is “fun as hell,” you out yourself as a paper-pushing remf with little to no real experience. And your attempt to qualify yourself becomes more embarrassing.

    I have never fired a bump stock and don’t want to. I had no use for 3 round burst on an m4, and very little use for full-auto on an m4.

    Kirk, you miss the point entirely and pose a strawman.

    Shall not be infringed. What don’t you understand about that?

  20. I fully support the second amendment. However, as a former Army officer, I’m trying to figure out why someone needs a part added to their rifle that mimics the rapidfire of a machine gun. The distinction between how the mechanism works in a machine gun versus a rifle with a bump stock is a technicality. They both fire ammunition much faster than anyone could do with a simple, semi-automatic rifle.

    I have fired an M-16 and a 50 caliber machine gun. I will admit they were fun as hell but I was also wearing the uniform of an officer in the US Army.

    So, I’m a little torn about this issue. Sadly, I am worried that if the government wins on this issue, then they will continue to push forward against the second amendment rights of gun owners. Let’s hope the people that have a bump stock only use it for entertainment.

  21. This is no victory, certainly not for common sense.

    The US has the worst rates of gun death in the developed world.

    Trump was spot on in banning bump stocks and he should have banned a lot more. That wasn’t an emotional decision. It was a logical and clear-headed one. Only the most perverse would think otherwise.

    The grubby firearms fetish in the US is the stuff of a deeply failed state and a dystopian society.

    No properly developed country would allow it.

  22. This should not be right to sell something and then turn around and call it illegal especially if they don’t want to go the money back to the people and they paid for I don’t know how much they were it is pretty sad wanting someone always got to go against the second amendment rides The Constitution was made for a reason and it should be followed by any president but looking at our president now leaving classified documents all over the place all day his garage is locked for his Corvette is they need to get him out of there and get someone in that little protect the Constitution

  23. Our guys could offer the Dems a deal: Bumpstock ban for deregulation of suppressors and SBRs. Never happen because their definition of compromise is “give us 90% of what we want and we’ll be back for the rest in 6 months.”

  24. tRump banned bump stocks without due process. This, proving he was a dictator who doesn’t care about our second amendment rights. Now he wants to suspend the entire constitution and take away all our rights!

  25. Look at the destruction of 2A Rights going on in Illinois!
    Law abiding responsible gun owners being punished and regulated for the crimes of criminals. Even if you previously owned any of the guns on the ban list you must now register them with the Illinois State Police including ant magazines larger than 12 rounds. Or face Felony Charges!

  26. This is what happens when you have an alphabet Agency legislating at the will of the President Joke Biden. Looking at YOU ATF and be careful with your pistol brace ruling ! Ban that and it will get shot down in flames too! The ATF and these rule changes are like playing baseball and in the seventh inning they suddenly play by new rules. Someone in charge there and at the FBI need to grow a set!

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