While most of the attention from the end of the United States Supreme Court’s last term focused on several landmark cases, including a major win for gun owners in the NRA-supported case New York State Rifle and Pistol Assn., Inc. v. Bruen, SCOTUS also issued a decision that may substantially limit federal authority to regulate firearms.
In West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, the Court evaluated whether the EPA had sufficient authority to issue an Obama-era regulation known as the Clean Power Plan (“CPP”). While that rule dealt with a regulation aimed at curbing emissions from power plants, when the Court opines on federal regulatory authority, the decision can often have far reaching consequences.
Most notably, the Court’s highest-profile modern decision on administrative law, Chevron U.S.A., Inc., v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., also arose from a challenge to an EPA regulation, but has completely reshaped administrative law with far-reaching consequences beyond environmental law.
Federal regulators, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“ATF”), often cite so-called Chevron deference when defending new regulations. While the Court’s original decision required an evaluation of Congress’ intent in giving an agency regulatory authority, Chevron has evolved into a doctrine that is highly deferential to federal regulators.
NRA has recently filed amicus briefs in several cases challenging the federal ban on bump-fire stocks. Those briefs all argue for limiting the deference courts give to administrative agencies, at least for regulations that have potential criminal consequences.
Many had hoped that the Court would directly limit Chevron deference in the West Virginia case. While the Court did not directly limit Chevron, it did give weight to another statutory interpretation doctrine that may help rein in federal firearm regulations.
The Court resolved the case using the major question doctrine, holding that when a regulation involves a major question that “the agency must point to ‘clear congressional authorization’ for the authority it claims.” As to determining when a particular regulation may be a major question, the Court pointed to the exercise of previously “unheralded” authority and when the question involves one of vast political significance.
Under these factors, it is hard to see how ATF’s recent attempts to completely redefine what items constitute the “frame or receiver” of a “firearm” and effectively ban pistol stabilizing braces would not be major questions. They are both novel attempts at regulation and involve serious political significance (legislation has been introduced in Congress on both of these issues).
While it remains unclear how significant this new ruling will be, it certainly indicates that the Court is willing to conduct a thorough review of any new exercise of federal regulatory power.