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Supreme Court to decide if government can regulate ‘ghost guns’

Biden administration rule seeks to curb kits that can be assembled into working firearms

President Joe Biden speaks during a 2022 event on the South Lawn of the White House to commemorate the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, meant to curb gun violence.
President Joe Biden speaks during a 2022 event on the South Lawn of the White House to commemorate the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, meant to curb gun violence. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Supreme Court will decide whether the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can regulate so-called “ghost gun” kits that can be assembled into a working firearm.

The Biden administration asked the justices to overturn a lower court decision that tossed out a rule meant to curb the kits, which allow a buyer to complete a gun that does not have a serial number to track and without a background check.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit held that the 2022 rule went beyond the scope of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which allowed ATF to consider a finished “frame or receiver” to be a firearm.

In the petition to the Supreme Court, the Biden administration argued that the 5th Circuit decision invited gun sellers to avoid the background check and record-keeping requirements normally required of gun dealers.

“An ordinary speaker of English would recognize that a company in the business of selling kits that can be assembled into firearms in minutes — and that are designed, marketed, and used for that express purpose — is in the business of selling firearms,” the petition said.

The result of the 5th Circuit’s interpretation “would be a flood of untraceable ghost guns into our Nation’s communities, endangering the public and thwarting law-enforcement efforts to solve violent crimes,” the Biden administration wrote.

The rule’s challengers, which includes weapon parts kit makers, urged the justices to allow the 5th Circuit decision to stand. The group argued the ATF rule went beyond the definition of “firearm” in the law.

“If that definition has become obsolete or unsatisfactory in any way, that is an issue for Congress to address,” the challengers’ brief said.

Earlier in the case, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the administration could continue to enforce the rule while the challenge played out.

The justices did not set a date for oral arguments in Monday’s order, but they will decide the case by the end of the court’s next term in June 2025.

In 2022, the Democrat-controlled House passed legislation on a mostly party-line vote that would have restricted “ghost guns” as part of a package of gun control proposals in the aftermath of the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which killed 19 students and teachers.

But those ghost gun provisions were not included in the final gun violence package that Congress passed that year, which included few gun control measures.

The ghost gun rule is the latest gun control issue to reach the Supreme Court, which has included disputes over the legality of concealed-carry restrictions and a different ATF rule regulating so-called “bump stocks,” which allow a rifle to mimic automatic fire.

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