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.
What are ‘ghost guns’ and why are they a problem?
Ghost guns are firearms that are privately assembled and lack the usual serial numbers required by the federal government. They can be made from parts and kits that can be bought online or at a store without a background check. The kits can be quickly assembled into a working firearm.
Ghost guns have been used in several high-profile shootings, including the 2019 attack on a California synagogue and the 2017 rampage in Las Vegas that killed 58 people. According to the White House, there were about 20,000 suspected ghost guns reported in 2021 to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as having been recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations – a tenfold increase from 2016.
What did the Biden administration do to regulate ‘ghost guns’?
In April 2022, Biden announced a series of executive actions to address the “epidemic of gun violence” in the country. One of them was a rule issued by the ATF to target the rapid proliferation of ghost guns. The rule clarified that ghost guns qualify as “firearms” under the Gun Control Act of 1968, 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.
Biden said the rule was “about public safety – helping law enforcement solve crimes and reducing the number of untraceable ghost guns flooding our communities.”
How did the rule face legal challenges?
The rule was challenged by several gun rights groups and individuals who argued that it violated their constitutional right to bear arms and exceeded the authority of the ATF under the Gun Control Act. They filed lawsuits in various federal courts seeking to block the rule from taking effect.
On July 5, 2023, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Fort Worth, Texas issued a nationwide injunction against the rule, finding that it was “arbitrary and capricious” and that it would cause “irreparable harm” to the plaintiffs. O’Connor said that the ATF had no power to regulate parts and kits that are not themselves firearms, and that the rule would impose burdensome requirements on hobbyists and collectors who make their own guns for personal use.
What did the Supreme Court do?
The Biden administration appealed O’Connor’s ruling to the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and also asked the Supreme Court to stay the injunction pending the appeal. The administration argued that O’Connor’s ruling was erroneous and would undermine public safety by allowing thousands of unregulated ghost guns to enter the market.
On August 8, 2023, the Supreme Court granted the administration’s request by a 5-4 vote, effectively restoring the rule for now. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court’s three liberal justices – Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – in granting the stay. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh dissented.
The court did not explain its reasoning, but it indicated that it was not ruling on the merits of the case. The stay will remain in effect until the 5th Circuit decides on the appeal or until further order from the Supreme Court.
How did people react to the Supreme Court’s decision?
A Justice Department spokesperson praised the court’s decision, saying that it “will allow us to continue implementing this important public safety measure while we defend it on appeal.”
One of the rule’s challengers, the Firearms Policy Coalition gun rights group, said in a statement that it was “deeply disappointed” with the decision but remained confident that it would again win on appeal. The group said that it would “continue to fight for our members’ rights in this case and others.”
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.