US Supreme Court reinstates ‘ghost gun’ rule struck down by lower court

US Department of Justice says more than 19,000 firearms without serial numbers were seized in crime probes in 2021.

Ghost guns on display
'Ghost guns' are displayed at the headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department in California on November 27, 2019 [File: Haven Daley/AP Photo]

The US Supreme Court has temporarily reinstated a rule cracking down on the proliferation of firearms without serial numbers, known as “ghost guns”, reversing a ruling by a lower court.

In a narrow 5-4 decision on Tuesday, the nation’s highest judicial body ruled to keep in place regulations introduced by the administration of President Joe Biden to restrict “ghost guns”, which can be constructed from separate parts or put together using 3D printers.

The ruling is only temporary, though, while the government appeals the lower court’s decision.

Gun rights advocates and businesses had challenged the new rule, arguing the “ghost gun” restriction would violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

But Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar — the Biden administration’s top lawyer for the Supreme Court — argued that the temporary reinstatement of the “ghost gun” rule would not disadvantage those groups.

“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,” she said in a court filing.

More than 19,000 “ghost guns” were seized in criminal investigations in 2021, a tenfold increase in a period of about five years, according to the US Department of Justice.

Issued last year, the Biden administration’s new rule expanded the federal definition of a firearm to include unfinished gun parts used in “ghost guns”. That, in turn, required licensing and serial numbers for the parts, in an effort to trace them more easily.

The rule does not bar people from buying kits of equipment that can be used to assemble a gun. Rather, it requires manufacturers to run background checks prior to sales as they do with most commercial firearms.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll completed on Tuesday found strong support for such restrictions, with 70 percent of respondents saying “ghost guns” should be required to have serial numbers and should only be produced by licensed manufacturers.

“It’s common sense: Ghost guns ARE guns, and they should be serialized and regulated as such,” the pro-gun control group Giffords said in a social media post on Tuesday. It had filed an amicus brief in support of the administration’s rule.

But in June, US District Judge Reed O’Connor struck down the Biden administration’s rule, saying it exceeded the authority granted to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Lawyers for pro-gun and business advocacy groups made similar arguments before the Supreme Court, after the Biden administration requested a temporary injunction on the lower-court ruling. They said the bureau was out of step with established regulatory practices.

But the Supreme Court, despite its firmly conservative 6-3 majority, ultimately ruled in favour of the Biden administration’s request on Tuesday. Conservative Justices John Roberts and Amy Coney Barrett sided with the court’s three liberal justices, allowing the rule to remain in place while the appeals process took place in the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

The Supreme Court, however, has recently ruled to curtail firearm regulations in other cases, despite concerns over public safety.

In June 2022, the court limited the ability of legislators to restrict people from carrying guns in public spaces, a move that galvanised pro-gun groups and spurred a push to roll back existing regulations.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies