Supreme Court

Supreme Court will take up the legal fight over ghost guns, firearms without serial numbers

A 2022 law changed the definition of a firearm under federal law to include unfinished parts so they can be tracked more easily

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 29: Pedestrians walk in front of the U.S. Supreme Court February 29, 2024 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court decided to take up former President Donald Trump's claim that he is immune from prosecution for actions he took in office. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to take up a Biden administration appeal over the regulation of difficult-to-trace ghost guns that had been struck down by lower courts.

The justices by a 5-4 vote had previously intervened to keep the regulation in effect during the legal fight. Ghost guns, which lack serial numbers, have been turning up at crime scenes with increasing regularity.

The regulation, which took effect in 2022, changed the definition of a firearm under federal law to include unfinished parts, like the frame of a handgun or the receiver of a long gun, so they can be tracked more easily. Those parts must be licensed and include serial numbers. Manufacturers must also run background checks before a sale, as they do with other commercially made firearms.

The requirement applies regardless of how the firearm was made, meaning it includes ghost guns made from individual parts or kits or by 3D printers. The rule does not prohibit people from buying a kit or any type of firearm.

The Justice Department had told the court that local law enforcement agencies seized more than 19,000 ghost guns at crime scenes in 2021, a more than tenfold increase in just five years.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, in Fort Worth, Texas, struck down the rule last year, concluding that it exceeded the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ authority. O’Connor wrote that the definition of a firearm in federal law does not cover all the parts of a gun. Congress could change the law, he wrote.

For under $100, you can buy all the parts for a "ghost gun," a difficult-to-trace firearm made from parts without serial numbers. The Biden Administration plans to crack down on ghost guns, which make up a small but increasing portion of the guns seized at crime scenes. The fact that ghost guns were made at all is a sign of weak or easily circumvented gun laws, says Vanderbilt University professor and author Jonathan Metzl. "We have gun laws, and then we have loopholes that are so big you can drive any size truck you want through them," he told LX News.

A panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made up of three appointees of then-President Donald Trump largely upheld O'Connor's ruling.

The Supreme Court allowed the regulation to remain in effect while the lawsuit continues. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined with the court’s three liberal members to form the majority. Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas would have kept the regulation on hold during the appeals process.

Barrett, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were appointed by Trump.

Arguments won't take place before the fall.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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