Full 4th Circuit will hear case involving prohibition of guns with no serial numbers

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  • The full 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals will hear United States v. Randy Price, a case involving the federal government's ban on guns with no serial numbers.
  • A federal judge in West Virginia struck down the federal ban in October 2022, citing the US Supreme Court's precedent in the 2022 Bruen case.
  • North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein joined with counterparts in 20 other states, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the District of Columbia in filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the federal government's position.

The entire 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals will hear a case in the coming months dealing with government bans on guns with no serial numbers. North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein signed a 2022 brief supporting the federal government in the case.

In United States v. Randy Price, a federal judge in West Virginia ruled in October 2022 against a federal law banning guns with no serial numbers. US District Judge Joseph Goodwin labeled the law unconstitutional. He based the decision on the US Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen.

Bruen set a precedent that federal courts must strike down a gun control measure unless it is consistent with the historical understanding of the Second Amendment.

The federal government appealed Goodwin’s ruling to the 4th Circuit. A three-judge appellate panel heard oral arguments in the case on Dec. 6. Among those participating in the panel was Judge James Wynn, who has since announced plans to take “senior status,” a form of semi-retirement.

The 4th Circuit issued an order after 5 p.m. Friday announcing that it would rehear the case “en banc.” That means all eligible judges on the court will participate in a final decision. The case could be heard between March 19-22.

Stein joined attorneys general from 20 other states, the Northern Mariana Island, and the District of Columbia in filing a December 2022 amicus, or friend-of-the-court, brief supporting the federal government’s ban.

“Amici States have an interest in ensuring that laws regulating firearm serial numbers, like Section 922(k), remain valid and effective,” according to the brief. “Such laws assist state and local law enforcement officials in tracing firearms used in criminal activity and are thus crucial ‘in investigating serious crimes.’”

“Accordingly, the vast majority of states and territories have enacted laws like Section 922(k) regulating firearm serial numbers,” the brief continued. “The district court’s sweeping decision holding Section 922(k) unconstitutional under New York State Rifle and Pistol Ass’n, Inc. v. Bruen, 142 S. Ct. 2111 (2022), undercuts these laws and the criminal investigation purposes they serve.”

“Serial numbers are vital to tracing the origin and owner of a firearm,” the attorneys general argued. “When law enforcement officials recover a gun in the aftermath of a crime, one of their first investigative steps is to submit a ‘trace request’ to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“ATF”). The trace request relays to ATF the gun’s identifying details, including — crucially — its serial number. The serial number, in combination with the model, manufacturer, and caliber, makes ‘any given firearm uniquely identifiable and traceable.’”

“Using this information, ATF is able to trace the firearm’s chain of custody from the initial manufacturer or importer to the first retail purchaser,” the brief continued. “These ATF traces are ‘an integral part of any investigation involving the criminal use of firearms’ — and states have a critical interest in the efficacy of criminal investigations.”

“An overwhelming majority of jurisdictions across the country — forty-one states, the District of Columbia, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — have enacted serial number laws that resemble those of the United States,” the attorneys general explained. “Like the United States, some states prohibit the possession of a firearm with obliterated serial numbers. Other states prohibit the act of obliteration itself.”

“As the primary actors charged with defining and enforcing criminal laws, … states have an interest in ensuring that these laws, along with Section 922(k), remain permissible methods of preserving firearm serial numbers and investigating crimes committed with guns,” the brief continued. “These provisions, many of which have been enacted by states that otherwise generously protect gun rights, reflect an uncommon democratic consensus on how states can and should regulate firearms. The district court’s boundless reading of Bruen threatens this consensus and should be reversed.”