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Ghost Guns: US Supreme Court To Hear Challenge Against Curb On Untraceable Guns

The rule targets the rapid proliferation of privately made ghost guns bought online without federal requirements such as serial numbers or a background check for buyers.
Ghost Guns
FILE PHOTO: Parts of a ghost gun kit are on display at an event held by U.S. President Joe Biden to announce measures to fight ghost gun crime, at the White House in Washington U.S., April 11, 2022. (Kevin Lamarque /REUTERS)

WASHINGTON: The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide the legality of a federal regulation aimed at reining in homemade “ghost guns” as President Joe Biden’s administration combats the increasing use of the largely untraceable weapons in crimes nationwide.

The justices took up the administration’s appeal of a lower court’s decision finding that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) exceeded its authority in issuing the 2022 rule targeting parts and kits for ghost guns, which can be assembled at home in minutes.

The ATF rule targeted the rapid proliferation of privately made ghost guns bought online without federal requirements such as serial numbers or a background check for buyers. These features that make them especially attractive to criminals and others barred from lawfully purchasing firearms, including minors.

The regulation expanded the definition of a firearm under the 1968 federal law called Gun Control Act to include parts and kits that may be readily turned into a gun. It required serial numbers and that manufacturers and sellers be licensed. Sellers under the rule also must run background checks on purchasers prior to a sale.

According to the administration, police departments nationwide have confronted “an explosion of crimes involving ghost guns,” now recovering tens of thousands of the weapons every year.

Yet ghost guns are almost impossible to trace. The ATF successfully traced to unlicensed purchasers less than 1% of unserialised firearms recovered from crime scenes between 2016 and 2021, according to court papers.

Plaintiffs including the parts manufacturers, various gun owners and two gun rights groups – the Firearms Policy Coalition and Second Amendment Foundation – sued to block the rule in federal court in Texas. They portrayed the policy as a threat to the long history of legal private gunsmithing in the United States.

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The rule imposes on the sale of parts and kits the same conditions that already govern firearms manufacturers and dealers in millions of other transactions every year, according to the administration.

O’Connor issued a ruling in 2023 invalidating the rule, finding that the administration exceeded its authority under the Gun Control Act. The congressional definition of a firearm “does not cover weapon parts, or aggregations of weapon parts, regardless of whether the parts may be readily assembled into something that may fire a projectile,” the judge concluded.

The 5th Circuit upheld O’Connor’s decision faulting the ATF, saying the agency impermissibly rewrote the firearms law while attempting to “take on the mantle of Congress to ‘do something’ with respect to gun control. But it is not the province of an executive agency to write laws for our nation.”

Unlike some other gun-related cases, this one does not centre on the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.”

The United States, with the world’s highest gun ownership rate, remains a nation deeply divided over how to address firearms violence including frequent mass shootings.

In three major rulings since 2008, the Supreme Court has widened gun rights, including a 2022 decision that declared for the first time that the U.S. Constitution protects an individual’s right to carry a handgun in public for self-defence.

In another gun-related case, the court on February 28 heard arguments over the legality of a federal ban on “bump stocks” -devices that enable semiautomatic weapons to fire rapidly like machine guns. A ruling in that case is expected by the end of June.

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In a career spanning over three decades and counting, I’ve been the Foreign Editor of The Telegraph, Outlook Magazine and The New Indian Express. I helped set up rediff.com’s editorial operations in San Jose and New York, helmed sify.com, and was the founder editor of India.com.

My work has featured in national and international publications like the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, Global Times and The Asahi Shimbun. My one constant over all these years, however, has been the attempt to understand rising India’s place in the world.

On demand, I can rustle up a mean salad, my oil-less pepper chicken is to die for, and depending on the time of the day, all it takes to rock my soul is some beer and some jazz or good ole rhythm & blues.

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