President Biden’s attempt to ban so-called ghost guns cannot be enforced on a pair of unfinished gun part manufacturers, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
A three-judge panel for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals narrowed a lower court injunction barring enforcement of the ATF’s unfinished frames and receiver rule after finding that the judge in that case improperly extended the injunction to private citizens who purchase parts to make homemade guns.
“We agree with the Government that the district court’s injunction sweeps too broadly,” the panel wrote in an unsigned opinion in VanderStock v. Garland. “Injunctions that afford relief to non-parties are potentially problematic. And it appears the district court’s injunction sweeps too broadly insofar as it affords relief to non-party customers.”
At the same time, the panel rejected the government’s attempt to overturn the injunction as it applied to those directly challenging the rule. They upheld the injunction over enforcing the rule against 80 Percent Arms and Defense Distributed.
“The party-plaintiff manufacturers would be irreparably harmed by being forced to shut down their companies or by being arrested pending judicial review of the Final Rule,” the panel wrote.
On its face, the ruling hands a split decision to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and gun-rights advocates challenging the Biden administration’s rule. However, that shared victory could be short-lived. Additionally, narrowing the injunction may not have a significant practical impact.
Though it vacated the injunction for “ghost gun” customers, the panel said it did so under assurances that the federal government “will not enforce the Final Rule against customers who purchase regulated ‘frames or receivers’ and who are otherwise lawfully entitled to purchase firearms.”
It also allowed the lower court to broaden the injunction if the government doesn’t abide by its promise.
“Of course, if circumstances change, the district court is free to narrowly tailor injunctive relief to meet the changed circumstances,” the panel wrote. “But as things stand today, the Government is correct that the injunction cannot extend to non-party customers.”
The panel wrote that the plaintiffs are “likely to succeed on the merits because the Final Rule is contrary to law.”
DOJ declined to comment on the decision.
The ruling comes shortly after the Supreme Court intervened in the case on behalf of the DOJ. In August, the Court granted an emergency stay on a district court order vacating the rule in its entirety. That stay allowed the DOJ to enforce the rule again until the same district judge who previously vacated the rule issued a new injunction against it limited to the two gun companies and their customers last month.
The DOJ challenged that injunction with the Fifth Circuit on the grounds that the district judge was ignoring the direction of the Supreme Court. The panel disagreed.
“There is a meaningful distinction between vacatur (which is a universal remedy) and an injunction that applies only to two named plaintiffs (which is a traditional equitable remedy),” the judges wrote.
DOJ can either appeal to the Supreme Court once again or proceed to the case’s merits.