The Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a legal challenge to the Trump administration's regulatory ban on bump stocks, with one of the court's Trump-appointed justices explaining that the issue needs more time to work through in the lower courts.
The case at hand — Guedes v. ATF — turns heavily on a Supreme Court precedent known as "Chevron deference." The term was coined after the 1984 Chevron v. NRDC ruling, which provided a framework for when courts should defer to federal agencies' "reasonable interpretation" of vague laws passed by instead of imposing their own. Conservatives have long taken issue with the precedent, arguing that it gives too much power to the administrative state.
Guedes, which was brought by a group of individual plaintiffs and gun rights organizations, asks whether Chevron deference apples to the administration's 2018 decision to ban bump stocks by reinterpreting federal statute dealing with machine guns rather than having Congress address the matter by deliberating a new law.
In 2018, the Justice Department announced the new regulation classifying bump stocks as "machine guns" under federal law, despite the fact that they do not change the firing action of a semi-automatic firearm.
In their petition for the Supreme Court to take up the case, the plaintiffs argued that lower courts had incorrectly applied Chevron precedent in upholding the bump stock ban, and should have instead applied a different, less deferential standard for evaluating it.
"That holding conflicts with numerous holdings of this Court, mischaracterizes the nature of Chevron deference, distorts the litigation process and the government's prerogative regarding whether and how to exercise any implicitly delegated authority, and undermines fundamental tenets of our constitutional structure," the petition said of the lower court ruling.
In an opinion explaining why the Guedes petition was denied, Justice Neil Gorsuch agreed with the idea that the Chevron deference had been incorrectly applied, noting that the administration had even asked the lower court to waive it.
"The executive branch and affected citizens asked the court to do what courts usually do in statutory interpretation disputes: supply its best independent judgment about what the law means," the justice wrote. "But, instead of deciding the case the old-fashioned way, the court placed an uninvited thumb on the scale in favor of the government.
Gorsuch went on to write that deferring to the government's interpretation of the law might not be appropriate for other reasons, too.
"The agency used to tell everyone that bump stocks don't qualify as 'machine guns.' Now it says the opposite," the justice wrote.
"The law hasn't changed, only an agency's interpretation of it. And these days it sometimes seems agencies change their statutory interpretations almost as often as elections change administrations," he continued. "Why should courts, charged with the independent and neutral interpretation of the laws Congress has enacted, defer to such bureaucratic pirouetting?"
However, the justice agreed with his colleagues that the court should wait, noting that other courts lower courts are currently dealing with the regulatory ban as well.
"Before deciding whether to weigh in, we would benefit from hearing their considered judgments — provided, of course, that they are not afflicted with the same problems," Gorsuch concluded. "But waiting should not be mistaken for lack of concern."