The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has a bad habit of forgetting it isn’t part of the legislative branch of government, and trying to accomplish through unelected bureaucrats and administrative rules what gun control activists in Congress could not.

Fortunately for the rule of law and the separation of powers, the ATF is also on a bit of a losing streak in federal court—a losing streak that continued Friday at the highest level in Garland v. Cargill.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that the ATF exceeded its statutory authority when it reclassified bump stocks as “machine guns” under federal law.

Although Cargill was centered around firearms, it didn’t involve any arguments over whether the Second Amendment protects a right to own bump stocks, specifically, or machine guns, generally.

Rather, the question in this case was far more simplistic: Is a bump stock device a machine gun, in the first place?

Understanding Cargill requires a bit of background and context. One of the most important distinctions made by federal gun regulations is between machine guns, the possession of which is heavily restricted for civilians, and semiautomatic firearms, which have long been the type of gun most commonly owned by civilians.

Federal law defines a machine gun as a weapon that “shoots, automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.” A semiautomatic rifle, meanwhile, “requires a separate pull of the trigger to fire each cartridge.”

In layman’s terms, the distinction between a machine gun and a semiautomatic firearm is all about what must happen for the gun to fire a second bullet.

In a semiautomatic weapon, pulling the trigger causes the gun to fire exactly one round. In order to fire a second bullet, you must release the trigger so that it resets, and then it must be physically pulled again to fire the next bullet.

But when you pull the trigger in a machine gun, the weapon will fire bullets continuously until either you release the trigger, or the gun runs out of ammunition. The trigger doesn’t need to reset and be reengaged. 

From a practical standpoint, then, one of the primary differences between machine guns and semiautomatic guns (and the primary reason machine guns are so heavily restricted for civilians) is that machine guns have a much faster rate of fire.

But, importantly, Congress didn’t include “rate of fire” as a factor for determining whether a weapon is machine gun, choosing instead to focus on the internal mechanics of the gun.  

Enter the bump stock, an aftermarket device that can be affixed to many commonly owned semiautomatic rifle platforms. These devices don’t change the gun’s internal mechanics—one pull of the trigger will still cause the gun to fire only one bullet.

Instead, the device enables the shooter, through a combination of technique and physics, to pull the trigger much more rapidly than most shooters would be capable of, absent the device.

Between 2010 and 2018, American gun owners spent more than $100 million purchasing an estimated 520,000 bump stocks. At the time, these purchases were completely lawful. The ATF determined on least 15 different occasions throughout this eight-year period that the addition of a bump stock didn’t turn a semiautomatic weapon into an illegal machine gun.

Even though the device could greatly increase the gun’s rate of fire to rival that of a machine gun, the basic mechanics of the semiautomatic rifle hadn’t changed.

Then, in 2017, on the heels of a high-profile mass public shooting involving the use of a bump stock, the ATF abruptly changed its mind. The agency not only decided that bump stocks did, in fact, turn a semiautomatic weapon into a machine gun, but that the devices had in essence always been machine guns, despite the agency’s previous rulings to the contrary.

Americans who possessed a bump stock were now required to destroy the device or surrender it to ATF, without receiving compensation for their value.

Michael Cargill, one of the many law-abiding American gun owners who had legally bought bump stocks in reliance on ATF’s long-standing determination that they weren’t machine guns, promptly sued the ATF over its about-face.

Among other things, he argued that bump stocks plainly don’t fall under the definition of “machine gun,” and the ATF was therefore effectively rewriting the federal statute—something only Congress can do.

The Supreme Court on Friday vindicated Cargill and countless other peaceable American gun owners that the ATF had, for all intents and purposes, suddenly and unilaterally decided were felons with illegally possessed machine guns.

This doesn’t mean that the fight to ban bump stocks is over. Far from it.

The Cargill decision will almost certainly result in a flurry of congressional efforts to change the federal definition of machine gun to include these devices—efforts that might very well have been successful back in 2017, had the ATF not “jumped the gun” with its sudden reinterpretation. (And, of course, any legislative action to classify bump stocks as machine guns will, with equal certainty, be met with legal challenges arguing that bump stocks or machine guns are “arms” protected by the Second Amendment.)

The victory Friday is not that the court constructively fleshed out its Second Amendment jurisprudence or substantively protected the right to keep and bear arms from infringement.

Rather, the victory is found in the court’s affirmation that the law means what the text says, and not what unelected bureaucrats think the text ought to say or would have said if they’d been left in charge of it.

It sends an important message that there’s no end run around—or loophole through—the democratic process. If Congress wants to change federal law, it must do so itself, through the legislative process and with its members bearing the political consequences of unpopular or unconstitutional laws.

And, in that sense, Cargill is a victory that reverberates far beyond the Second Amendment.

It’s a win for the rule of law and constitutional government.