West Virginia vs. EPA: A Victory for Gun Owners?

The Unites States Supreme Court has ruled on West Virginia vs. EPA and there may be some good news for gun owners. The decision basically says that Congress did not grant authority to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gases however they choose. The decision should apply to other executive agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).

The Scales of Justice
The Supreme Court may have handed gun owners a win by ruling against the Environmental Protection Agency. (Shutterstock)

What West Virginia vs. EPA Does

The decision revolves around the question of executive authority. Recent Presidents have relied heavily on agencies like the EPA and ATF to further their aims without going through Congress. This is often expedient and perfectly understandable, as the agencies generally know more about their given responsibilities than lawmakers do. But it’s grown over the years to where executive agencies make “rules” that carry the force of federal law. The Constitution expressly reserves that power for Congress.

Chief Justice John Roberts
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion invoking the Major Questions Doctrine. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A court procedure called the Chevron Deference Doctrine lets them get away with it. Courts invoke the Chevron Deference Doctrine in legal challenges to the agencies when Congressional guidance is vague or ambiguous.

Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion invokes the “Major Questions Doctrine” to curtail the Chevron Deference Doctrine by barring its application to issues with “vast economic and political significance.” Justice Neil Gorsuch’s concurrence supports Roberts’ opinion. The Major Questions Doctrine has been around for a while, but this decision marks its first appearance in a majority opinion. That’s a big deal because it’s now a precedent, not just a procedural doctrine.

Justice Neil Gorsuch
Justice Neil Gorsuch’s concurring opinion solidified the use of the Majority Question Doctrine as precedent. (npr.org)

The media and other bad actors are claiming the Supreme Court wants the planet to burn. I literally saw that headline. It’s all nonsense, of course. The decision merely narrows the Chevron Deference Doctrine and returns regulatory power to Congress, especially on big issues like air and water quality. It also says the EPA cannot make sweeping nationwide regulations. They must now consider the conditions in individual states and tailor their regulations accordingly.

What does this have to do with the ATF?

So, how will this affect the ATF? Well, we don’t know yet, but we can make informed speculations. If you follow the gun control debate at all, you know the ATF is doing everything it can to enact gun control absent laws passed by Congress. Given the current administration’s priorities, that isn’t surprising.

ATF agents raid Polymer 80
The ATF raided Polymer 80 after changing the rules on 80 percent frames. (gunsamerica.com)

But other presidents have done it too. Remember, it was President Trump who pushed the ATF’s ban on bump stocks. The ATF is exploiting vague language in the National Firearms Act (NFA) and Gun Control Act (GCA) to make firearms “rules” that amount to law. That is probably a presidential policy as well as an ATF policy. Up to now, the Chevron Deference Doctrine has protected them.

But now, they shouldn’t be able to claim that protection. Guns are likely an issue of “vast political significance,” considering their ownership is protected by the Second Amendment. The many lawsuits against the ATF have just taken on a new significance of their own.

This decision should affect the ATF’s bump stock ban, their rules on frames and receivers, certain trigger systems, and the forthcoming pistol brace issue. Every one of those “rules” constitutes a federal law. The only problem is that Congress hasn’t passed anything dealing with those subjects. The ATF, directed by the administration in power, has done all that themselves.

ATF Tropic Thunder meme
Just don’t do it.

Gun owners have had their lawfully purchased property seized or been forced to turn it in or destroy it. Entire industries have been put out of business while others have had their valuable products banned. People have gone to jail because they became criminals overnight.  The ATF did all that and more. Government bureaucrats should not have that power. They aren’t meant to have it. It’s a big reason why power has flowed from the Legislative Branch to the Executive Branch for decades.

ATF rules
It’s what the ATF does.

Sending Regulatory Power Back to Congress

So, now this stuff goes back to Congress where it belongs. It remains to be seen what Congress will do with it. But it’s easier for us to influence lawmakers than a faceless executive agency that answers only to the President and is backed up by court doctrine. This should hobble the administration’s gun control efforts since the ATF is one of their biggest weapons.

US Capitol
Significant regulatory power goes back to Congress. What will they do with it? (cnn.com)

Of course, Congress may not want those new hot potatoes headed their way. After all, our elected representatives let it go to begin with because they don’t like taking stands that might limit their wiggle room come election time. But we can use that reluctance against them if we speak up. I know I say that a lot, but you know that thing about the squeaky wheel getting the grease? “They” say it for a reason. Don’t give your representatives the opportunity to claim that no one contacted them about a given issue.

The ATF has run roughshod over gun rights for far too long. The state of West Virginia may have ended that by suing the EPA, which has acted similarly. I can’t say how it will affect environmental regulations, but it looks like we might score a few points for the good guys when it comes to guns.

ATF rules
Fedbois Gonna Fedboi.

So, I won’t be removing my pistol brace just yet. Those lawsuits against the ATF might just work out after all. Stay tuned.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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