Supreme Court reinstates federal ‘ghost gun’ rule backed by Washington state

The move allows authorities to enforce the regulations while a legal challenge against them continues.

By: - August 8, 2023 5:03 pm

(Getty Images)

A Biden administration effort to clamp down on untraceable firearms made from kits can continue for now, after the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in Tuesday.

It’s a small victory for states, including Washington, who say federal inaction has led to more of the “ghost guns” crossing their borders and getting used in crimes.

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 that a Biden administration rule regulating the guns – which can be made at home from parts bought online – can remain in effect while a legal challenge against it moves ahead. 

Attorney General Bob Ferguson joined 21 other attorneys general last month in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the rule, which was issued last year.

Their brief described the rule as “a vital backstop to states’ efforts to stem the flow of ghost guns and combat the violence engendered by prohibited persons possessing untraceable weapons.” 

Ferguson said the Supreme Court temporarily reinstating the rule was “an important legal victory.” 

“We cannot allow untraceable weapons to continue flooding our communities, which makes it much harder for law enforcement to solve crimes and makes it far too easy for felons, domestic abusers, juveniles, and others to illegally acquire deadly weapons,” he added in a statement.

The regulation from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives broadened the agency’s definition of “firearm” under the Gun Control Act of 1968. It was revised to include weapons that “may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive” and “the frame or receiver of any such weapon.” 

Gun owners and opponents of the rule challenged it in court, arguing the regulations were not allowed under the Gun Control Act. 

A federal district court judge in Texas sided with the challengers and blocked the rule earlier this summer. The case is now before a federal appeals court.

Washington is among 13 states with laws to regulate ghost guns, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. 

The Legislature last year passed a bill to prohibit people from making, assembling, selling, purchasing or knowingly or recklessly possessing untraceable firearms. 

According to the law, this includes guns manufactured after July 1, 2019 that are not antique and cannot be traced by law enforcement with a serial number. Hobbyists can still make guns at home if they use parts with serial numbers. 

But even with a state law prohibiting untraceable firearms, the attorneys general who argued for the federal rule said there is only so much individual states can do on the issue.

“There is a natural limit to states’ abilities to combat a nationwide problem that crosses state borders,” their brief read. “Absent federal enforcement, ghost guns have continued to proliferate, including in the very states that have been trying to keep them out.”

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Laurel Demkovich
Laurel Demkovich

Laurel joined States Newsroom in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.