Supreme Court Accepts ATF Frames and Receivers Rule Challenge

The United States Supreme Court has accepted the Justice Department’s appeal in VanDerStok v. Garland. The case addresses the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’ (ATF) Final Rule on Frames and Receivers, more commonly known as the “Ghost Gun” Rule. The ATF has lost at every level so far, leading to this final appeal. Let’s review what has happened to this point and discuss what this could mean.

US Supreme Court Building
The ATF finally has to face the Supreme Court. (

The Final Rule on Frames and Receivers

The ATF published the Final Rule in late 2022, unilaterally changing the definition of a “firearm” that was established by the 1968 Gun Control Act (GCA). Basically, the GCA defined a “firearm” as follows:

  • Any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive;
  • The frame or receiver of any such weapon;

Furthermore, the GCA defined “frame or receiver” as “that part of a firearm which provides housing for the hammer, bolt or breechblock, and firing mechanism, and which is usually threaded as its forward portion to receive the barrel.”

Those are definitions hammered out and voted on by the US Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Nowhere does it say that ATF, which the GCA created, has the authority to change those definitions. But that’s what the agency did. The Final Rule effectively merges parts (A) and (B) above, applying the phrase “may be readily converted” to the term “frame or receiver.” (A) and (B) are clearly separate, meaning that Congress purposely kept them apart. The GCA is federal law, duly enacted through the legislative process. Executive agencies like the ATF do not possess the authority to change that, especially since the changes carry the weight of federal law, including imposing criminal penalties like fines and prison time.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland
US Attorney General Merrick Garland is listed as the case’s primary defendant. (

Legal Challenge

The ATF’s Final Rule was quickly challenged. The VanDerStok case gained traction in federal court in the Northern District of Texas. The Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) and Firearms Policy Coalition (FPC) litigated on the plaintiffs’ behalf and continue to do so.

Federal District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled for the plaintiffs and vacated the Final Rule in its entirety, saying the ATF overstepped its authority. Judge O’Connor wrote that “The Court begins with the Plaintiffs’ shared claim that, in attempting to regulate products that are not yet a ‘frame or receiver,’ and therefore not a ‘firearm’ for purposes of the Gun Control Act, the ATF has acted in excess of its statutory jurisdiction. As they argued at the preliminary injunction stage, Plaintiff’s maintain that the Final Rule exceeds ATF’s statutory authority in two primary ways. First, they argue that the Final Rule expands ATF’s authority over parts that may be ‘readily converted’ into frames or receivers when Congress limited ATF’s authority to ‘frames or receivers’ as such. Second, they argue that the Final Rule unlawfully treats component parts of a weapon in the aggregate (i.e., a weapon parts kit) as the equivalent of a firearm. The Court agrees with the Plaintiffs.”

The judge’s opinion concluded by saying that “Because the Final Rule purports to regulate both firearm components that are not yet a ‘frame or receiver’ and aggregations of weapon parts not otherwise subject to its statutory authority, the Court holds that the ATF has acted in excess of its statutory jurisdiction by promulgating it.”

Federal District Judge Reed O'Connor
Federal District Judge Reed O’Connor. (

The Appeal

The Justice Department appealed the decision to the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals. The 5th Circuit’s three-judge panel upheld Judge O’Connor’s decision but granted 10 days for the defendants to seek a stay from the Supreme Court. That stay was granted, which was unsurprising. The Supreme Court likes to stay out of lower court proceedings until the appeals process brings a case directly to them. This process allows the arguments to play out while refraining from influencing lower courts’ deliberations by issuing premature judgments.

The full 5th Circuit again upheld the decision once more, prompting the Justice Department’s appeal to the high court. And here we are. The Supreme Court has accepted the case and will hear arguments soon.

What Now?

The SAF and FPC attorneys will argue the case before the high court, while the US Solicitor General’s office will defend the Final Rule on the Justice Department’s behalf. Those arguments will be streamed live, and at least one, probably more, YouTube gun channels will carry it. I can’t say how long the arguments will last, but this case has been allowed to mature properly, so it could very well be over in one day.

US Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar
US Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar may defend the rule herself. (

The Supreme Court will not issue a same-day decision. The high court will deliberate and discuss before releasing an opinion sometime this summer. The Justice Department has lost at every stop so far, so here’s hoping they go 4 for 4. If so, the Final Rule is dead. If not, the ATF will no doubt go after the plaintiffs with a vengeance, along with anyone else they deem in violation of the rule. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. Either way, we’ll keep you updated on how this case proceeds.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

Sign Up for Newsletter

Let us know what topics you would be interested:
© 2024 GunMag Warehouse. All Rights Reserved.
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap