ATF Reinterprets the Term “Machinegun,” Again

On March 22nd, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“ATF”) released an open letter on “forced reset triggers” (“FRTs”) indicating that the agency’s position is that these triggers meet the definition of “machinegun” under federal law, and are therefore “firearms” under both the Gun Control Act (“GCA”) and National Firearms Act (“NFA”). Under ATF’s new interpretation, these triggers are effectively prohibited due to the GCA’s prohibition on new manufacture of machineguns for the commercial market.

While the open letter claims to apply to “some” FRTs, it is unclear what current design would not fall under ATF’s new interpretation.

Forced reset triggers operate by using the mechanical action of a semi-automatic firearm to forcibly reset the trigger, so it can be more quickly pulled by the user. This can result in a higher than normally attainable rate of fire similar to bump firing.

ATF sent Rare Breed, a manufacturer of FRTs, a cease-and-desist letter in July 2021, claiming that the trigger met the GCA's definition of "machinegun."

Rare Breed filed suit in Florida. Rare Breed sought a TRO and a preliminary injunction to stop the agency from enforcing its application of the statute, but both were denied. The case was then dismissed without prejudice (meaning it could be refiled).

Because the case deals with ATF's interpretation of the term "machinegun," the result will likely rest on whether or not the Supreme Court reevaluates the deferential standard that federal courts apply when agencies interpret statutes they are charged with enforcing.

This deferential standard, often referred to as Chevron Deference because of a case of the same name, is wholly incompatible when applied to criminal statutes because it allows the government to turn once lawful conduct into a felony overnight.

The Supreme Court currently has several cases before it that would allow it to review Chevron. NRA filed an amicus brief in one of these cases that involved ATF’s reinterpretation of the definition of machinegun as applied to bump fire stocks. That brief argues that for 200 years, the Supreme Court has consistently held that “the power to create crimes lies exclusively with Congress.” Thus, when criminal liability is on the line, “ATF’s position is ‘not relevant at all.”’

Until the Supreme Court reevaluates this deferential standard, gun owners, and all law-abiding Americans, will be stuck attempting to follow the whims of unelected federal bureaucrats.

© 2022 National Rifle Association of America, Institute for Legislative Action. This may be reproduced. This may not be reproduced for commercial purposes.

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