August 09, 2023
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday voted to allow President Joe Biden’s Final Rule reclassifying some gun parts as “firearms” to stand while the matter plays out in an appeals court. The newest court ruling on the so-called “ghost gun” rule came after Justice Samuel Alito twice stayed a federal judge’s injunction that had blocked the rule from being enforced during an appeal of the earlier ruling finding the “law” to be unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court action in Garland v. VanDerStok—a surprise to many—came on a 5-4 vote, with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh dissenting. Two of the “conservative members of the court—Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Comey Barrett—voted to allow the rule to remain in force, as did liberal Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
On June 30, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, a George W. Bush appointee, vacated the rule, noting in his lengthy ruling that the federal government simply does not have regulatory power over firearms parts, regardless of the Justice Department’s apparent belief that it does possess such authority. Because of the Supreme Court action, the Final Rule will again be in effect while the federal government appeals the ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Firearms Policy Coalition Action Foundation, which along with the Mountain States Legal Foundation represents the plaintiffs in the case, expressed dismay that the Supreme Court had stepped in and put the rule into effect again after the lower court had blocked it.
“We’re deeply disappointed that the Court pressed pause on our defeat of ATF’s rule effectively redefining ‘firearm’ and ‘frame or receiver’ under federal law,” Cody J. Wisniewski, FPCAF’s general counsel, said in a released statement. “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.”
Indeed, the government will have its work cut out for it in proving its point on appeal, as Judge O’Connor made some very good points in blocking the Final Rule.
“The Gun Control Act’s precise wording demands precise application,” Judge O’Connor wrote in his ruling. “Congress could have described a firearm as ‘any combination of parts’ that would produce a weapon that could fire a projectile. It used that language elsewhere in the definition. Congress could have described a firearm as any part ‘designed’ to be part of a weapon. It used that language, too. Congress could have described a firearm as a set of parts that ‘may be readily assembled’ into a weapon, as it did for ‘destructive device.’
“Congress could have written all those things, and the very definition of ‘firearm’ demonstrates that Congress knew the words that would accomplish those ends. But Congress did not regulate firearm parts as such, let alone aggregations of parts that are ‘designed to or may readily be completed, assembled, restored, or otherwise converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive.’ Accordingly, the Final Rule’s attempt to regulate weapon parts kits lacks statutory support.”
The judge further wrote that just because ATF testified that they had long been regulating some of the items in question doesn’t make the action constitutional.
“If these administrative records show, as Defendants contend, that ATF has previously regulated components that are not yet frames or receivers but could readily be converted into such items, then the historical practice does nothing more than confirm that the agency has, perhaps in multiple specific instances over several decades, exceeded the lawful bounds of its statutory jurisdiction,” the court wrote. “That the agency may have historically acted [beyond its legal authority] does not convince the Court it should be permitted to continue the practice.”
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans is set to hear the case next. Following that ruling, the matter is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court, which might or might not choose to hear the case.
About the Author
Freelance writer and editor Mark Chesnut is the owner/editorial director at Red Setter Communications LLC. An avid hunter, shooter and political observer, he has been covering Second Amendment issues and politics on a near-daily basis for nearly 25 years.
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