A federal appellate court applying the rule of lenity has held that bump stocks are not “machinegun parts” under the National Firearms Act (NFA). In so concluding, the court reasoned that ambiguity exists in the NFA’s definition of “machinegun parts” but refused to apply ensconced, administrative legal principles—the so-called Chevron deference—to resolve the interpretive dispute. ABA Litigation Section leaders are divided as to whether Chevron deference applies, but all leaders agree that if the U.S. Supreme Court were to hear such a case, it likely would pare back Chevron deference principles.
Statutory and Case Schema
The Gun Control Act (GCA) prohibits the “possession or transfer of a machinegun” by any person and incorporates by reference the NFA, which defines “machinegun,” in relevant part, as “any weapon which shoots . . . automatically more than one shot . . . by a single function of the trigger.” Amplifying this definition, the NFA subsumes, in its own definition of machinegun, “the frame or receiver of any such weapon” and “any part . . . or combination of parts . . . designed or intended . . . for use in converting a weapon into a machinegun.” Congress has long delegated the power to administer the NFA and GCA to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).
Following the 2018 massacre in Las Vegas, in which a gunman used a bump stock attached to semiautomatic weapons to kill 59 and injure over 500 people, the ATF required owners or possessors of bump stocks to abandon or destroy their bump stocks. If not abandoned within the required time frame, such owners or possessors would be in possession of an illicit “machinegun part,” contrary to the NFA and GCA.
In Hardin v. ATF, the plaintiff owned several bump stocks and brought a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky alleging that the ATF exceeded its statutory authority by requiring bump stock owners to destroy or abandon those parts. The district court ruled in favor of the ATF. The plaintiff appealed that judgment in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
Rule of Lenity Trumps Chevron Deference
The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s opinion. It began its analysis by noting that the question of whether a bump stock is a “machinegun part” prohibited by the NFA depends on the interpretation of the words “automatically” and “single function of the trigger” in the statute. Observing that federal appellate courts are divided on the issue, the court cited Aposhian v. Barr and Guedes v. ATF from the Tenth and D.C. Circuits, respectively, as cases embracing the position that bump stocks are machinegun parts, and Cargill v. Garland from the Fifth Circuit, which takes the contrary view. The court also cited its own en banc decision in Gun Owners of America, Inc. v. Garland, in which the Sixth Circuit’s 16 judges were split equally on the issue.
Next, the court concluded that, because—as evidenced by the parties’ positions in the litigation—the NFA is subject to two or more considered viewpoints, it is ambiguous. Quoting Chevron, USA, Inc. v. NRDC—the 1984 seminal precedent setting forth how courts should interpret an ambiguous statute administered or enforced by a federal agency—the court stated it would typically afford Chevron deference to the ATF’s interpretation of the NFA so long as such interpretation was not “arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute.”
Citing Supreme Court precedents, however, the court concluded that, because the NFA has criminal sanctions if violated and the Supreme Court “has not clearly defined the bounds of Chevron deference,” caution should be exercised before deferring to the ATF’s interpretation of the NFA. Significantly, said the Hardin court, deferring to the expertise of an administrative agency is the central reason to apply Chevron deference to an administrative agency’s interpretation of a statute. And because the ATF does not have unique expertise on interpreting what is a “machinegun” under the NFA, Chevron deference was not proper here.
The prior framework established, the court cited Supreme Court precedents for its position that the rule of lenity—which says that ambiguous criminal statutes should be interpreted in favor of a defendant or against the state—is applicable here, because Chevron deference was not required and a criminal statute is at issue. Relying heavily on Judge Ho’s concurrence in Cargill, the court concluded that, because the NFA does not “clearly and unambiguously prohibit bump stocks,” the rule of lenity dictates that the NFA must be read as excluding bump stocks from the definition of “machinegun parts.”