The Ghost Guns Dilemma: Understanding the ATF's Expanded Definition and the Supreme Court's Decision

August 9, 2023 by laWow Team

The term "ghost guns" has become a focal point in the ongoing debate over gun control in the United States. These are firearms that are assembled from parts, often without serial numbers, making them difficult to trace. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) has recently sought to expand the definition of firearms to include these ghost guns, leading to a legal battle that reached the Supreme Court. This blog post will explore the ATF's expanded definition, the Supreme Court's decision, and the consequences of these actions.

ATF's Expanded Definition

In August 2022, the ATF made two key changes to the regulatory definition of a "firearm."

Frames and Receivers: The ATF declared that items not considered frames or receivers could still be classified as such if they "may readily be ... converted to function as a frame or receiver" (27 C.F.R. § 478.12(c)). This change is significant because the Gun Control Act of 1968 defines a firearm to include any weapon that "may readily be converted to expel a projectile" but does not mention items that can be converted into frames or receivers (18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(3)).

Weapon Parts Kits: The ATF expanded the definition to include "a weapon parts kit that is designed to or may readily be completed, assembled, restored, or otherwise converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive" (27 C.F.R. § 478.11). This expansion includes kits that do not contain a frame or receiver, even though Congress specifically chose to treat only the frame or receiver as equivalent to a firearm.

These changes were seen by some as an overreach by the ATF, exceeding its statutory authority and departing from over fifty years of regulatory practice.

The Supreme Court's Decision [1]

The Supreme Court has allowed the Biden administration to temporarily reinstate a rule by the ATF regulating "ghost guns". The decision, reached by a 5-4 vote, puts on hold a previous order by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor that had barred the ATF from enforcing the rule nationwide. The ruling means that federal laws governing the sale of firearms, such as background checks and record-keeping obligations, will apply to ghost guns while the challenge to the rule continues in a federal appeals court.


The ATF's expanded definition and the Supreme Court's decision have far-reaching implications:

Regulatory Impact: The changes bring items facilitating the creation of ghost guns under federal purview, potentially affecting manufacturers, sellers, and private citizens.

Legal Precedent: Depending on the outcome of the federal appeals court, a precedent may be set for how federal agencies can interpret and expand statutory definitions.

Public Safety: The regulation of ghost guns may have implications for crime prevention and public safety, as these untraceable weapons have been associated with criminal activities.


The debate surrounding ghost guns and the ATF's expanded definition represents a dynamic and intricate legal landscape. The Supreme Court's recent decision to temporarily uphold the ATF's rule underscores the ongoing tension between safeguarding individual rights and ensuring public safety. As the legal proceedings progress, particularly in the federal appeals court, we can anticipate further developments that might reshape the contours of gun regulation. This evolving situation underscores the importance of staying informed, as the final ramifications of the ATF's rule and the Supreme Court's stance could significantly influence the broader discourse on gun control in the United States.


  1. Amy Howe, Supreme Court temporarily reinstates ban on “ghost guns”, SCOTUSblog (Aug. 8, 2023, 1:27 PM),
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