By Nate Raymond
(Reuters) - The Biden administration on Wednesday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower-court ruling that would prevent it from regulating privately made firearms called "ghost guns" that are difficult for law enforcement to trace.
The U.S. Department of Justice in its petition argued the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in November wrongly declared that a rule adopted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 2022 to combat the rapid proliferation of ghost guns was "unlawful."
The rule updated the definition of a "firearm," "frame" and "receiver" under the Gun Control Act of 1968 to address the rise of ghost guns with no serial numbers that can be assembled from kits that can be bought online or at a store without a background check and lack serial numbers.
There were more than 19,000 suspected ghost guns reported in 2021 to the ATF as having been recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations - a 1,000% increase from 2017, according to the Justice Department.
In November, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit comprised entirely of judges appointed by Republican former President Donald Trump held that the ATF's rule went beyond the authority the law provided the agency to regulate guns.
The ruling came in a case brought by firearm owners, gun rights groups, including the Firearms Policy Coalition, and manufacturers, who had sued in Texas to challenge the regulation.
The Justice Department, on behalf of Democratic President Joe Biden's administration, argued in Wednesday's petition that the 5th Circuit's holding contradicted the Gun Control Act's plain text and would allow anyone to buy a kit online and assemble a fully functional gun without any background checks, records or serial numbers.
"The result would be a flood of untraceable ghost guns into our nation's communities, endangering the public and thwarting law-enforcement efforts to solve violent crimes," the Justice Department argued.
It noted the Supreme Court had twice before in August and October acted following earlier rulings in the same case by the Texas judge and granted requests by the administration that have allowed the regulations to remain in effect while litigation continues.
The administration has said that ghost guns are attractive to criminals and others prohibited from lawfully buying firearms, including minors.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Daniel Wallis)