Supreme Court Permits Continued Regulation of So-Called ‘Ghost Guns’

The Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration and temporarily allowed enforcement of regulations over so-called “ghost guns” that can be assembled from kits at home. 

The administration appealed to a federal judge’s earlier ruling, throwing out the regulations. The high court put the ruling on hold while the case is appealed further on its merits. 

The federal regulation was put into place a year ago. It would place ghost guns under the same control as other fully assembled firearms, making it much easier to trace serial numbers, sales, and background checks. Officials said the move was in response to rising numbers of untraceable guns. 

Tuesday, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to reinstate the administration’s regulations on firearms temporarily. The order by the court said the rules will remain in place while the legal battles continue. Neither side explained its reasoning, which is typical for emergency applications. However, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas said they would have denied the government’s request.

The order was unsigned, but the list of dissenters indicates that Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by fellow conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett and liberal Justices Elena Kagan, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and Sonia Sotomayor in approving the plea from the government. 

In June, a Texas federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) surpassed its authority by regulating the kits under the 1968 Gun Control Act. “The liberty interests of law-abiding citizens wishing to engage in historically lawful conduct” — assembling their weapons  — “outweighs the Government’s competing interest in preventing prohibited persons from unlawfully possessing firearms,” wrote United States District Judge Reed O’Connor in one of a series of orders that halted the government rule.

The 5th Circuit declined the fed’s request to a nationwide block of the rules

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit declined the request from the government to lift O’Connor’s ultimate nationwide block on the rules and set a hearing on the merits on September 7, U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar requested that the Supreme Court step in to keep the regulations in place while the legal challenged continued.

The ruling by O’Connor “would allow anyone with access to the Internet to anonymously buy a parts kit or partially completed frame or receiver and easily assemble a working firearm in as little as twenty minutes,” wrote Prelogar. 

“And by making untraceable guns freely available to felons, minors, and other prohibited persons, it would endanger the public and thwart efforts to prevent and solve serious crimes.”

The rules from the Biden administration have been in place since August 2022 and were challenged in the case at the high court by five companies that manufacture or distribute ghost gun products, two individual firearm owners, and two advocacy organizations. 

“The Gun Control Act of 1968 reflects a fundamental policy choice by Congress to regulate the commercial market for firearms while leaving the law-abiding citizens of this Country free to exercise their right to make firearms for their own use without overbearing federal regulation,” wrote their attorney David H. Thompson. The “commercial production and sale of other items that may be used by private citizens to make firearms for their own use is outside the scope of the Act.”

They stated the label “ghost gun” is a “propaganda term,” and the justices should not accept the government’s “self-serving characterization of the supposed ‘soaring use of ghost guns in violent crimes’ along with its statistics concerning the alleged increase in ‘ghost guns … recovered by law enforcement each year’ since 2017.”

Prelogar said that the gun groups were misleading in relying on the fact that ATF, for decades, didn’t find authority to regulate ghost guns. “There was no such thing as a ghost gun in 1968,” wrote Prelogar. “As recently as 2017, they were a novelty sold in relatively small numbers. It is only over the last five years that the manufacturing respondents and others have dramatically changed the status quo by selling tens if not hundreds of thousands of firearms outside the Act’s regulations.”

Multiple lawsuits have been filed nationwide to challenge ATF regulations; however, O’Connor is the only judge to block their implementation. Prelogar indicated that was reason enough for the Supreme Court to disallow him from vacating the nationwide rules. 

Prelogar wrote that, in effect, “the district court below claimed a veto power over all other federal judges in the country. And the court’s nationwide vacatur has compelled the government to seek emergency relief from this Court, short-circuiting the ordinary process.”

The case is Garland v. VanDerStok.