The Supreme Court declined Monday to consider the latest challenge to a federal ban on bump stocks, keeping in place the prohibition on devices that essentially allow shooters to fire semiautomatic rifles continuously with one pull of the trigger.
By declining to grant an appeal, the justices not only avoided taking up a gun-related issue, they also sidestepped the latest challenge to the so-called administrative state.
Under then-President Donald Trump, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives banned bump stock devices in 2019. Trump had ordered a review of the devices after a mass shooting in 2017 in Las Vegas, in which a shooter armed with semiautomatic weapons and bump stock devices opened fire from his hotel suite onto outdoor concertgoers, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds of others.
At issue in the dispute was whether the ATF had exceeded its authority in 2018 by reclassifying bump stocks as machine guns under the National Firearms Act.
Challengers framed their appeal as a separation of powers dispute, arguing that a federal agency – unaccountable to the public – lacked the authority to issue a final rule banning the devices.
Cutting back on the power of federal agencies has been a project of conservatives for years, and the current court – dominated by appointees of Republican presidents – has been receptive to such efforts in other areas, including when it curbed the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to fight climate change last year.
Though the court has denied other cases challenging the bump stock ban in recent years, Monday’s decision contrasts with other decisions the justices have made in matters concerning firearms.
Last year, the court struck down a New York gun law enacted more than a century ago that places restrictions on carrying a concealed handgun outside the home – an opinion marking the widest expansion of gun rights in a decade.
Central to the case the court declined on Monday to hear is a 1984 decision that set forward factors to determine when courts should defer to a government agency’s interpretation of a statute. Under the decision, when courts are reviewing an agency action, they must first consider whether the law is ambiguous. If it is not, the analysis ends. If, however, the language is not clear, a court then considers whether the agency action is a reasonable interpretation of the law. Some conservatives have expressed criticism of the doctrine, arguing that courts should not defer to the agencies.
In the case at hand, W. Clark Aposhian, a firearms instructor, purchased a non-mechanical bump stock before they were outlawed. Following the ban, Aposhian filed suit, arguing that the ATF should not have classified the bump stock as a machine gun under the law and that the agency lacked the authority to issue the ban. He lost at the district court level, and a divided panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, leading him to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Biden administration urged the justices to stay out of the dispute, arguing that it was not a good vehicle to look at the scope of the 1984 decision because the underlying statute was not ambiguous.
“Thus, ATF determined that bump stocks are machine guns under the statue, not that the agency had discretionary authority under the statute to classify them as machine guns,” Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar argued in court papers.
This story has been updated with additional details.