In a significant move to curb the proliferation of ghost guns, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5–4 on August 8 to reinstate a regulation aimed at addressing the rising incidence of firearms without serial numbers turning up at crime scenes across the nation.
The regulation had been invalidated by a federal judge in Texas, but the court’s decision puts it back into effect while the Biden administration appeals the ruling.
The regulation, issued last year, expanded the definition of a firearm under federal law to encompass unfinished parts like handgun frames or long gun receivers, making them more easily traceable. These parts were now required to be licensed and marked with serial numbers.
The new rule also mandated background checks for purchasers, similar to those conducted for other commercially produced firearms.
Notably, the rule applied regardless of how the firearm was assembled, whether from kits, individual parts or 3D printed components.
Local law enforcement agencies reported seizing over 19,000 ghost guns at crime scenes in 2021 alone, highlighting the pressing need for regulation.
Indeed, agencies such as the New York State Police reported a drastic 104% increase in ghost gun seizuresthe following year.
Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, representing the Biden administration, expressed her concerns about ghost guns getting into the wrong hands and hoped the regulations will enhance public safety.
“The public-safety interests in reversing the flow of ghost guns to dangerous and otherwise prohibited persons easily outweighs the minor costs that respondents will incur,” Prelogar said.
The ruling comes after U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Fort Worth, Texas, had struck down the regulation in June, arguing that it exceeded the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ authority.
The dispute then moved to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
The Supreme Court’s decision was reached with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett joining the liberal members, forming the majority.
On the opposing side, Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas favored keeping the regulation on hold during the appeals process, though no explanations were provided for their stance.
Advocacy groups, such as the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, lauded the court’s action, contending that the rule was a crucial step to regulate ghost gun kits more effectively.
“The challenged rule simply requires that ghost gun kits are regulated like the guns that they are. It will save lives.” said David Pucino, representing the organization.
However, the Firearms Policy Coalition Action Foundation was dissatisfied with the outcome.
“We’re deeply disappointed that the Court pressed pause on our defeat of ATF’s rule effectively redefining ‘firearm’ and ‘frame or receiver’ under federal law,” the group said.
The broader legal battle will continue in the 5th Circuit, which has scheduled oral arguments for September 7. The Supreme Court’s intervention allows the regulation to remain in effect while this appeal unfolds.