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Feds ask Supreme Court to reinstate ghost gun regulations

The Biden administration’s effort to combat gun violence hit a snag when a Texas court blocked new regulations aimed at reining in ghost guns.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Biden administration asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to block a Texas federal judge’s nationwide pause on ghost gun regulations. 

U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar told the justices that an immediate halt to the ruling is necessary to prevent harm to public safety. 

“The district court’s universal vacatur is irreparably harming the public and the government by reopening the floodgates to the tide of untraceable ghost guns flowing into our nation’s communities,” Prelogar wrote in the emergency application. “Once those guns are sold, the damage is done: Some will already be in the hands of criminals and other prohibited persons — and when they are inevitably used in crimes, they are untraceable.” 

Ghost guns refer to unserialized and untraceable firearms that can be bought in pieces online and assembled at home. Anyone with a credit card can purchase these items and create a fully functional firearm in as little as 20 minutes. 

The government says the number of ghost guns on the market has skyrocketed in the last few years. In 2017, law enforcement recovered about 1,600 ghost guns for tracing. By 2021, they had received over 19,000. A recent Washington Post investigation revealed how teenagers were taking advantage of the weapons with deadly consequences. 

Aiming to crack down on these weapons, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives updated its regulations on how firearms are defined to include ghost guns. ATF clarified that parts kits should be included in this definition. This change forces companies that sell the kits to obtain a federal firearm license as well as put serial numbers on the kit parts. Customers would also be required to undergo a background check before purchasing these items. 

Gun owners, advocacy groups, and manufacturers of the weapons sued the government to block the new rule. They are challenging the updated definition of firearms to include weapon part kits. The groups also take issue with the new definition of the frame or receiver to include dissembled weapons. 

In June, the lower court ruled in favor of these groups, finding that AFT went beyond its jurisdiction in creating the new rule. The judge vacated the rule nationwide. 

A Fifth Circuit panel offered the government a partial stay. The appellate court said the vacatur was overbroad but refused to stop the pause on the two challenged provisions of the new rule. 

The government says the Fifth Circuit’s action was not enough to prevent irreparable harm and has now asked the Supreme Court to step in. 

“There is more than ‘a fair prospect that the court would reverse’ if it granted review,” Prelogar wrote. “A weapon parts kit falls within the plain meaning of the act’s definition of ‘firearm.’ The term ‘frame or receiver’ is naturally interpreted to include partially complete receivers that can easily be made functional. And at a minimum, the district court erred in granting universal vacatur, wiping the rule off the books nationwide and pretermitting litigation pending in other courts.” 

Prelogar told the justices that without their help, makers of these kits would be free to continue on as they have been.

“Those profound harms to public safety and law enforcement dwarf any harm a stay would impose on respondents,” Prelogar wrote. “Under a stay, respondents would remain free to make, sell, and buy weapon parts kits and partial frames and receivers; they would need to comply only with the same straightforward and inexpensive administrative requirements that apply to commercial sales of all other firearms.” 

Other challenges to ATF’s rule have failed to halt the new regulations. A Texas firearms parts dealer brought a suit against the rule, claiming it would shutter its business. That challenge, however, was shot down by a federal judge in 2022. 

The high court has not yet requested a response from gun owners and advocacy groups. The application sits on the court’s shadow docket and could be acted upon by the justices at any time. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Government, Law, Politics

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