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U.S. Supreme Court reinstates Biden's 'ghost gun' restrictions - for now

Published August 08,2023
U.S. President Joe Biden holds up a ghost gun kit while announcing new measures by his administration to fight ghost gun crime at the White House in, Washington, U.S., April 11, 2022. (REUTERS File Photo)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday granted a request by President Joe Biden's administration to reinstate - at least for now - a federal regulation aimed at reining in privately made firearms called "ghost guns" that are difficult for law enforcement to trace.

The justices put on hold a July 5 decision by U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor in Fort Worth, Texas that had blocked the 2022 rule nationwide pending the administration's appeal.

The decision was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts and fellow conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett joining the court's three liberal justices to grant the administration's request. Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh dissented from the decision.

O'Connor found that the administration exceeded its authority under a 1968 federal law called the Gun Control Act in implementing the rule relating to ghost guns, firearms that are privately assembled and lack the usual serial numbers required by the federal government.

The rule, issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to target the rapid proliferation of the homemade weapons, bans "buy build shoot" kits that individuals can get online or at a store without a background check. The kits can be quickly assembled into a working firearm.

The rule clarified that ghost guns qualify as "firearms" under the Gun Control Act, expanding the definition of a firearm to include parts and kits that may be readily turned into a gun. It required serial numbers and that manufacturers and sellers be licensed. Sellers under the rule also must run background checks on purchasers prior to a sale.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll completed on Tuesday found that 70% of Americans support requirements that ghost guns have serial numbers and be produced only by licensed manufacturers. The idea had bipartisan support among respondents, with 80% of Democrats and 61% of Republicans in favor.

There were about 20,000 suspected ghost guns reported in 2021 to the ATF as having been recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations - a tenfold increase from 2016, according to White House statistics.

Biden's administration on July 27 asked the justices to halt O'Connor's ruling that invalidated a Justice Department restriction on the sale of ghost gun kits while it appeals to the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Alito, who handles emergency matters arising from a group of states including Texas, the next day temporarily blocked O'Connor's decision to give the justices time to decide how to proceed.

The administration said that allowing the O'Connor's ruling to stand would enable an "irreversible flow of large numbers of untraceable ghost guns into our nation's communities."

Plaintiffs including various gun owners, parts manufacturers and two gun rights groups - the Firearms Policy Coalition and Second Amendment Foundation - filed suit to block the rule in federal court in Texas. They claimed that the rule violated the Gun Control Act, portraying the policy as a threat to the long history of legal private gunsmithing in the United States.

O'Connor blocked the rule as an overreach, concluding that the congressional definition of a firearm "does not cover weapon parts, or aggregations of weapon parts, regardless of whether the parts may be readily assembled into something that may fire a projectile." The judge also rejected the administration's concern that such a ruling would allow felons, minors and others legally prohibited from owning a firearm to easily make one.

"Even if it is true that such an interpretation creates loopholes that as a policy matter should be avoided," O'Connor wrote, "it not the role of the judiciary to correct them."

The United States, with the world's highest gun ownership rate, remains a nation deeply divided over how to address firearms violence including frequent mass shootings.

In three major rulings since 2008, the Supreme Court has widened gun rights, including a 2022 decision that declared for the first time that the U.S. Constitution protects an individual's right to carry a handgun in public for self-defense.