US Supreme Court blocks judge's order allowing 'ghost gun' sales

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday barred two Texas-based manufacturers from selling products that can be quickly converted at home into firearms called "ghost guns," granting a request by President Joe Biden's administration to once again block a federal judge's order that had sided with companies.

The justices lifted Fort Worth-based U.S. Judge Reed O'Connor's Sept. 14 injunction barring enforcement of a 2022 federal regulation - a rule aimed at reining in the privately made firearms - against the two manufacturers, Blackhawk Manufacturing and Defense Distributed.

The rule was issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to target the rapid proliferation of these homemade weapons. It bans "buy build shoot" kits that individuals can get online or at a store without a background check or the usual serial numbers required by the federal government. The kits can be quickly assembled into a working firearm.

The decision marked the second time that the justices acted against an order by O'Connor in the case. In August, they halted the judge's previous decision blocking the regulation, reinstating the rule while an appeal proceeds.

The administration had said O'Connor's decision to grant an injunction favoring ghost gun kit makers despite the prior intervention by the justices "openly flouted" the Supreme Court's authority.

The rule expanded the definition of a firearm under a 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.

The administration has said that ghost guns are attractive to criminals and others prohibited from lawfully buying firearms, including minors. There were about 20,000 suspected ghost guns reported in 2021 to the ATF as having been recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations - a tenfold increase from 2016, according to White House statistics.

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.

Plaintiffs including the parts manufacturers, various gun owners and two gun rights groups - the Firearms Policy Coalition and Second Amendment Foundation - filed suit to block the ghost guns 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.

Rejecting the administration's concerns, O'Connor in July invalidated 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.

Biden's administration then asked the justices to halt O'Connor's decision while it appeals to the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Even though the justices on Aug. 8 granted that request, the manufacturers asked O'Connor for an injunction while the appeal plays out, which the judge issued. The 5th Circuit declined to pause that order.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)