Garland v. Cargill

Issues 

Are semi-automatic rifles equipped with bump stocks considered machineguns under the National Firearms Act of 1934?

Oral argument: 
February 28, 2024

This case asks the Supreme Court to determine whether a semi-automatic rifle equipped with a bump stock device is considered a “machinegun” under the National Firearms Act of 1934. A bump stock device is a rifle attachment that increases a semi-automatic rifle’s rate of fire. In 2018, in response to a mass shooting in Las Vegas, the government issued a new regulation interpreting the National Firearms Act, which prohibits machineguns, to also prohibit bump stock devices. Michael Cargill, who was forced to surrender several bump stock devices to the government, argues that a bump stock is not a machinegun, because a bump stock does not allow a semi-automatic rifle to fire more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger” or allow such a weapon to fire “automatically.” The government contends that a bump stock is a machinegun, and that legislative history and congressional intent support its interpretation of the statute. The outcome of this case has important ramifications on the risk of mass shootings and deaths in crowded areas, Second Amendment rights, and the ability of federal agencies to interpret federal statutes.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether a bump stock device is a “machinegun” as defined in 26 U.S.C. § 5845(b) because it is designed and intended for use in converting a rifle into a machinegun, i.e., into a weapon that fires “automatically more than one shot . . . by a single function of the trigger.”

Facts 

Since Congress passed the National Firearms Act of 1934, federal law has regulated machine guns. Cargill v. Garland at 2. The Act defines “machinegun” as “any weapon which shoots . . . automatically more than one shot . . . by a single function of the trigger.” Id. at 4. The Act also defines machinegun to include any attachment that can convert an ordinary firearm into a machinegun. Id.

Bump stocks are firearm attachments that allow a shooter to fire their weapon by using the firearm’s natural recoil to quickly reengage the trigger, resulting in an increased rate of fire. Id. They can be categorized as (1) non-mechanical bump stocks that require some continuous pressure from the shooter on the barrel and trigger to continue firing or (2) mechanical bump stocks that do not require the shooter to maintain such pressure to continue firing. Id. at 8–9. Before 2018, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (“ATF”) interpreted the National Firearms Act’s prohibition of machineguns to include mechanical bump stocks but exempted non-mechanical bump stocks from that definition. Id. at 9.

In 2018, a mass shooting in Las Vegas led the ATF to reconsider its position. Id. at 10. In that shooting, a gunman killed over 50 people and injured 500 using several weapons, many of which were equipped with bump stocks. Id. In response, the ATF published a new regulation subjecting anyone who possessed any kind of bump-stock-type device to criminal liability. Id. at 11–12.

Respondent Michael Cargill owned several non-mechanical bump stocks which he surrendered to the government in response to the new regulation. Id. at 12. Cargill challenged the legality of the regulation in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, arguing that the ATF lacked the authority to establish the new regulation because its interpretation of machinegun conflicted with its clear definition in the National Firearms Act. Id. Cargill argued that even if the statute was unclear, it should be construed in his favor because of the rule of lenity, which requires a court to interpret an ambiguous statute in a criminal defendant’s favor. Id. Cargill also argued that the statute was not entitled to Chevron deference, which requires courts to defer to agencies’ interpretation of the statutes that govern them, because it involved criminal penalties and that the new regulation was an unconstitutional exercise of legislative power by an administrative agency. Id. at 13.

The district court decided in favor of the government, holding that the government’s new interpretation of “machinegun” was the best reading of the statute. Id. It rejected Cargill’s nondelegation claim and declined to apply Chevron. Id. A panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, but the court sitting en banc reversed and vacated the panel’s opinion. Id.

The en banc Fifth Circuit reasoned that a bump stock was not a machinegun for purposes of the statute because a single pull of the trigger of a semi-automatic rifle equipped with a non-mechanical bump stock did not result in more than one bullet being fired. Id. at 17. It also concluded that such a weapon did not fire automatically because a shooter would have to maintain continuous pressure on the barrel and trigger to keep firing. Id. at 24. The court held that the statute was unambiguous and also declined to apply Chevron. Id. at 27. The court concluded that if the statute were in fact ambiguous, the rule of lenity would apply. Id. at 34–35.

The United States Supreme Court granted the government’s petition for certiorari on November 3, 2023. Brief for Petitioners, Garland at 1.

Analysis 

WHETHER A BUMP STOCK IS A “MACHINEGUN”

The government argues that a semi-automatic rifle equipped with a bump stock fires multiple shots by “a single function of the trigger” and “automatically,” thus falling within the statutory definition of a machine gun. Brief for Petitioners, Garland at 16.

First, the government argues that a rifle equipped with a bump stock fires multiple shots by a single function of the trigger when a single deliberate motion, such as a pull, initiates the firing of multiple shots. Id. at 17. The government asserts that dictionaries support its interpretation of “function of the trigger” as a single pull of the trigger. Id. at 18. The government posits that the words of a proposal to Congress by Karl T. Frederick, when he was president of the National Rifle Association (“NRA”), support this position. Id. The government points out that Frederick used “function of the trigger” interchangeably with “pull of the trigger” throughout the Congressional hearing and that Congress eventually adopted Frederick’s proposal, almost word for word, in the National Firearms Act. Id. at 18–19.

The government further contends that the House and Senate Committee Reports reflect a similar understanding of the phrase, as did the subsequent language used by Congress, the Executive Branch, and courts. Id. at 19–21. The government claims that Congress used the term “function” rather than “pull” to ensure that it would cover all automatic firearms, such as the Maxim gun, which used triggers that had to be pushed, not pulled, with a thumb. Id. at 22. The government argues that once a shooter pulls the trigger of a rifle equipped with a bump stock, they need not do anything to continue firing apart from maintaining constant forward pressure on the barrel, and therefore the rifle fires multiple shots “by a single function of the trigger.” Id. at 22–23. The government disputes the Fifth Circuit’s interpretation of the term “function” to adopt a “mechanical perspective” rather than a “shooter’s perspective,” arguing that such an interpretation conflicts with the statute’s text, context, and purpose. Id. at 23–25.

Next, the government argues that a rifle equipped with a bump stock fires multiple shots automatically. Id. at 30. The government asserts that dictionaries define “automatically” as “self-acting or self-regulating” and that a rifle equipped with a bump stock uses a self-acting or self-regulating mechanism that allows the rifle to fire multiple rounds through a single function of the trigger. Id. at 31. The government contends that a shooter need only keep their trigger finger stationary on the bump stock’s finger rest and maintain constant forward pressure on the barrel, and the bump stock will “take care of the rest.” Id. at 31–32. The government asserts that the Fifth Circuit’s position that a bump stock does not enable continuous firing because the shooter must maintain manual forward pressure lacks merit because in ordinary usage, the word “automatic” does not require a complete absence of human involvement. Id. at 32–33. The government also argues that Congress did not define machineguns so narrowly as to permit a trivial shift in the shooter’s pressure from the trigger to the barrel. Id. at 36.

Cargill counters that a semi-automatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not a machinegun because a bump stock does not cause a semi-automatic rifle to fire more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger” or allow such a weapon to fire “automatically.” Brief for Respondent, Cargill at 16.

First, Cargill argues that a bump stock does not cause a semi-automatic rifle to discharge more than one shot “by a single function of the trigger” because the shooter must still disengage the trigger before reactivating it for another shot. Id. at 18–20. Cargill argues that, although a bump stock allows a shooter to fire rapidly through repeated bumps of the trigger, this does not convert a semi-automatic rifle into a machinegun because a shooter without a bump stock could achieve the same with a quick trigger finger. Id. at 21. Cargill contends that the government previously understood this when it issued 15 classification letters between 2008 and 2017 declaring “non-mechanical” bump stocks to be outside the statutory definition of “machinegun.” Id. Cargill asserts that the government changed its mind to equate “function” with “pull” of the trigger based on an inaccurate claim that the drafters of the statute intended to equate the phrases. Id. at 21–22. Cargill argues that the government’s position is flawed because it relies primarily on the statement by Karl T. Frederick, who was the president of the NRA and not a member of Congress. Id. at 22–23.

Cargill argues that even if legislative history supported the government’s position, it cannot substitute the word “function” in the statute with language like “pull” solely because that better supports the government’s position. Id. at 23–24. Cargill contends that the word “function” cannot be equated with “pull” because there are automatic firearms with triggers that are pushed rather than pulled, so the phrases are not interchangeable. Id. at 24–25. Cargill argues that the government’s position is inconsistent because the government admits that Congress intended to use the word “function” rather than “pull” to cover all automatic weapons, including those with push triggers. Id. at 26–27. Finally, Cargill asserts that a bump stock does not alter the “function” of a trigger in any way, because the shooter must still disengage the trigger, allow the trigger to reset, and activate the trigger again before a subsequent shot can be fired. Id. at 28.

Next, Cargill argues that a non-mechanical bump stock does not cause a semi-automatic rifle to shoot more than one shot “automatically” because the shooter must continuously apply pressure on the barrel and maintain a finger on the trigger. Id. at 40–41. Cargill contends that the text of the statute specifies that a rifle must fire multiple shots in order to be a machinegun. Id. at 43. Cargill argues that if a rifle requires any extra help from the shooter after the initial activation of the trigger, then it is not firing more than one shot “automatically.” Id. at 42. Cargill contends that such help includes pushing forward on the barrel of a rifle, which Cargill argues is an act that is separate and distinct from the trigger’s function. Id. at 44.

METHOD OF STATUTORY INTERPRETATION

The government argues that the Supreme Court should not interpret a statute so as to facilitate evasion of the law. Brief for Petitioners at 38. For example, the government argues that in Abramski v. United States, the Court interpreted the term “transferee” in the Gun Control Act as excluding a middleman who bought a gun on behalf of the real purchaser; otherwise, according to the government, felons could simply direct a middleman to purchase guns on their behalf, undermining the law’s key provision. Id. at 39. The government posits that so too here, Congress intended to prohibit machineguns because their rapid fire poses an immense danger to the public and that bump stocks allow a semi-automatic rifle to reach the same level of firepower and danger through different technological means. Id. at 40–41. The government asserts that if the Court holds that bump stocks are legal because of that technicality, the Court would facilitate evasion of the machinegun ban. Id. at 41–42.

The government also rejects the Fifth Circuit’s use of the rule of lenity to interpret the statute, which requires the Court to interpret a statute in the criminal defendant’s favor. Id. at 44. arguing that the statute contains no grievous ambiguities and read in light of its context and purpose, defines “machinegun” to cover rifles equipped with bump stocks. Id.

Cargill counters that the Court should reject the government’s interpretation of the statute because the cases cited by the government rely on textual ambiguities not present in the National Firearms Act. Id. at 46. For example, Cargill argues that nothing in Abramski suggests that a court can use the statutory purpose to interpret the word “function” as “pull” or “automatically” as requiring additional and ongoing manual human input. Id. Cargill argues that Congress could have enacted a statutory prohibition on weapons that eliminate the manual movements that a shooter would need to make in order to fire continuously, or a prohibition on weapons that can fire hundreds of rounds a minute but chose not to. Id. at 47.

Cargill further argues that the Court should rule against the government because of the rule of lenity. Id. at 48. Cargill contends that the rule of lenity should take precedence over the Government’s interpretation based on legislative history, because ordinary citizens who do not have access to the Congressional testimony of a gun lobbyist, for example, will not have fair notice before being subjected to criminal punishment. Id. at 48–49.

Discussion 

THREATS TO PUBLIC SAFETY AND LIBERTY

Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence et al. (“Giffords”) assert, in support of Garland, that bump stocks threaten the right of assembly because crowds are vulnerable to guns equipped with those stocks. Brief of Amici Curiae Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence et al. (“Giffords”), in Support of Petitioners at 21. Chicago et al. add, in support of Garland, that densely populated cities are especially at risk of mass shootings with bump stocks. Brief of Amici Curiae Chicago et al., in Support of Petitioners at 11. The District of Columbia et al. (“D.C.”) caution, in support of Garland, that the mass shooting in Las Vegas involving bump stocks may inspire other shooters to use such stocks as well. Brief of Amici Curiae the District of Columbia et al., in Support of Petitioners at 17.

Chicago et al. additionally argue that bump stocks thus lead to more deaths. Brief of Chicago et al. at 13. The American Medical Association et al. (“AMA”) notes, in support of Garland, that even if victims survive a shooting, a bullet may cause permanent damage to their brains or other organs. Brief of Amici Curiae American Medical Association et al., in Support of Petitioners at 8. With bump stocks, the AMA asserts, shooters “can inflict injuries before anyone has time to react.” Id. at 13.

The Buckeye Institute counters, in support of Cargill, that owners of bump stocks use them for lawful purposes. Brief of Amicus Curiae The Buckeye Institute, in Support of Respondent at 16. The Institute points to self-defense in the home, militias, sporting, hunting, and target practice as examples. Id. The Institute claims that the new rule on machineguns therefore intrudes on Second Amendment rights of bump-stock owners. Id. at 15–16. The Second Amendment Law Center et al. argue, in support of Cargill, that a ruling for Garland would arm the ATF to extend its ban on machineguns to semi-automatic rifles, further encroaching on Second Amendment rights. Brief of Amici Curiae The Second Amendment Law Center et al., in Support of Respondent at 4, 8, 17–18.

The Buckeye Institute also argues that to uphold the new rule would be to authorize agencies to change their interpretations of criminal regulations without proper notice to the public. Brief of The Buckeye Institute at 14. The Manhattan Institute points out, in support of Cargill, that the ATF interpreted the term machinegun to exclude bump stocks for a decade and then changed it. Brief of Amicus Curiae The Manhattan Institute, in Support of Respondent at 7–9. The Buckeye Institute cautions that if the Court does not rein in agencies, they could create new crimes at will by stretching the meaning of unclear statutes. Brief of The Buckeye Institute at 13. Senator Lummis et al. caution that Chevron deference permits agencies to do so without strong judicial oversight. Brief of Amici Curiae Senator Lummis et al., in Support of Respondent at 16–18.

NEED FOR FEDERAL BAN ON BUMP STOCKS

D.C. argues that a federal ban on bump stocks is necessary because otherwise, interstate gun trafficking undermines state and local bans. Brief of the District of Columbia et al. at 23. D.C. posits that dangerous firearms flow from states that regulate firearms less stringently to those who regulate more, causing more killings there. Id. at 23–24. Chicago et al. claim that over 40 states—some of which do not ban bump stocks—have preempted gun control so that cities no longer have the authority to regulate guns; without a federal ban, Chicago et al. assert that bump stocks will continue to spread. Brief of Chicago et al. at 14, 17, 19.

The Buckeye Institute counters that there are too many federal criminal laws and regulations. Brief of The Buckeye Institute at 7–8. The Institute posits that the Code of Federal Regulations is more than 180,000 pages long and that there are over 300,000 federal crimes, most of which are regulations. Id. at 9. According to the Institute, that amounts to over-criminalization without the checks and balances that come with legislation from Congress. Id. at 7, 9–10. The Manhattan Institute argues that the executive branch exceeds its power where, as here, it does not execute but creates new law. Brief of Amicus Curiae The Manhattan Institute at 7–9.

Conclusion 

Written by:

Gijs de Bra

Tedrick Au

Edited by:

Matthew Hornung

Acknowledgments 

Additional Resources