US Supreme Court allows 'ghost guns' to fall under federal purview

3D printers beware, Biden's on the Build-Your-Own-Blunderbuss beat

The Biden administration's crackdown on 3D-printed gun parts can be allowed to be enforced, at least temporarily, after the US Supreme Court voted to let the rule to stand.

The one-page order [PDF], which was issued yesterday after a 5-4 vote, strikes down a decision from a Texas court in July that vacated the regulations on the grounds that they exceed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) authority and would need congressional approval.

Ghost guns are unserialized, privately made firearms often produced with a 3D printer. They are increasingly being found by ATF agents in violent crime investigations. According to the White House, law enforcement across the US recovered approximately 20,000 suspected ghost guns in 2022 alone, which it said is a tenfold increase compared to six years ago.

The components that make up ghost guns are often sold individually to modify semi-automatic weapons into full-auto machine guns (AKA auto sears) or as the ATF described: "build-your-own-gun kits that contain all or almost all of the parts needed to quickly build an unmarked gun."

The ATF's rule, issued after an executive order from President Biden and effective as of late August last year, essentially changes the federal definition of a firearm to include components, thus placing several new requirements on gun sellers and 3D-printer owning gun manufacturers, including:

  • Requiring a background check before selling someone parts necessary to make a gun
  • Requiring gun components like frames and receivers to be stamped with a serial number
  • Requiring gun dealers to add serial numbers to 3D printed gun parts once taken into inventory
  • Requiring gun retailers to retain sale records for the entire time they're licensed to sell firearms, thus increasing traceability of guns used in violent crimes

The Supreme Court's decision means the ATF and Biden administration can continue to enforce the new rules while the Texas decision is appealed to the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Cavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas dissented. No explanation was provided from either side of the bench.

Firearms advocacy groups have been behind challenges to the ATF's ghost gun rule, and expressed dissatisfaction at the Supreme Court's decision. "Regardless of today's decision, we're still confident that we will yet again defeat ATF and its unlawful rule at the Fifth Circuit when that Court has the opportunity to review the full merits of our case," said Cody Wisniewski, a lawyer with the Firearms Policy Coalition Action Foundation.

California law enforcement officials said in 2021 that ghost guns accounted for between a quarter and half of all firearms recovered at crime scenes in and around Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, and San Francisco. The vast majority were in the possession of individuals legally prohibited from having a gun.

"I've been on the force for 30 years next month, and I've never seen anything like this," said San Diego PD Lieutenant Paul Phillips, who organized the SDPD's first unit dedicated to dealing with ghost guns. ®

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