“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit Judge Eric Murphy cast the deciding vote to reverse a district court and rule, contrary to several other appellate courts, that a ban on dangerous bump stocks is illegal and should be enjoined. The March 2021 decision was in Gun Owners of America v Garland.
Under the Trump Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) issued a rule that classified semi-automatic rifles equipped with bump stocks, which cause the weapon to fire bullets at a speed “approximating that of an automatic weapon,” as machine guns that are illegal under federal law. The rule was promulgated after a deadly Las Vegas shooting using bump stocks that left 58 people dead and around 500 wounded.
On the same day in late 2018 that the rule was issued, the Gun Owners of America and several other gun rights groups and owners filed suit against the rule, and sought a preliminary injunction from a federal court in Michigan. The court held that the rule was proper and denied the injunction, and the gun advocates appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
More than two years later, Trump judge Murphy cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 panel decision that reversed the district court and ruled that a preliminary injunction should be issued against the ATF rule because it was an improper interpretation of federal law. The majority maintained that the ATF interpretation of the law is not “entitled to deference” under the Chevron principle because it concerns the federal “criminal statute” banning machine guns. In addition, accepting an argument precisely like those of two Trump judges who dissented from a recent 10th Circuit decision that upheld the bump stock ban, the majority held that bump stocks do not make a weapon into a machine gun because the gun allegedly does not work with a “single function of the trigger” as required in the machine gun law.
The majority thus reversed the decision of the district court and held that a preliminary injunction should be issued against the bump stock rule, although noting that such an injunction should extend no further than the “four states within the Sixth Circuit’s jurisdiction” and the parties themselves. The majority acknowledged that two other federal appellate courts had sustained the rule, but suggested that the split would allow the issue to “percolate” and would be more likely to lead the Supreme Court to decide to review the issue.
Judge Helene White, who was nominated by President George W Bush, dissented. She began by explaining that the usual Chevron principle of deference to the appropriate administrative agency should apply because the Supreme Court “has applied Chevron in the criminal context in three binding decisions,” Accordingly, Judge White maintained, the court should defer to the ATF’s view that because it makes a semi-automatic weapon work with a “single ‘pull’ of the trigger,” a bump stock turns such a rifle into a machine gun that operates with a “single function of the trigger” under federal law. She pointed out that ATF has adopted that interpretation of the “single function” phrase since 2006, and that three other federal appellate court had upheld it as reasonable.
As a result of Trump judge Murphy’s deciding vote, however, dangerous bump stocks are legal in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, creating an enhanced risk of gun violence at a time when the nation has once again seen the consequences of such violence. The ruling also increases the chances that the Supreme Court will consider the issue, creating a nationwide risk on this issue.