Law enforcement officials from Pa., Md. urge action against rising numbers of ‘ghost guns’

A display of 'ghost guns' displayed by Attorney General Josh Shapiro's office during a Capitol news conference on Monday, 12/16/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has promised a crackdown on so-called “ghost guns,” and during a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday, law enforcement officials from Pennsylvania and Maryland described how an exponential increase in those firearms — which are easily assembled from kits and not subject to federal gun laws — has expanded the workload of their agencies.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison testified that his department saw a 300% increase in the last year in ghost guns seized, and that nearly one-quarter of those have been from individuals too young to legally possess a gun.

In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said there’s been a 437 percent increase in the last year in the number of ghost guns recovered.

By not subjecting buyers of do-it-yourself gun assembly kits to a background check, criminals who otherwise are barred from purchasing a firearm can easily acquire one at gun shows, Shapiro said. He described a York County gun show where someone could buy a gun kit at one table, and take it to the next table to be assembled in minutes.

“It is clear to me that this is a glaring loophole that criminals are taking advantage of,” Shapiro told the Senate Judiciary Committee, adding: “This is the weapon of choice for criminals. This is what we’re up against.”

Tuesday’s hearing came days after the U.S. Department of Justice on Friday unveiled a proposed rule seeking to expand the definition of a firearm to include the assembly kits that have sidestepped federal regulations.

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That DOJ rule would require gun retailers to run background checks before selling kits that contain parts to assemble a gun, and instruct gun kit makers and licensed firearms dealers to include a serial number on certain parts.

Between 2016 and 2020, more than 23,000 firearms without serial numbers were reported to have been recovered by law enforcement from potential crime scenes, according to DOJ officials. That tally includes weapons connected with 325 homicides or attempted homicides.

When those guns are used in a crime, Harrison said the lack of a serial number makes it harder for law enforcement to trace the gun’s origins as they would with a typical gun, or to identify trafficking patterns.

Several Republican senators at Tuesday’s hearing blasted the push for serial numbers as part of an effort to create a national gun registry, a claim that Democrats disputed.

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Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also lambasted the issue of ghost guns as a “made-up problem,” arguing that the guns are not more dangerous than standard guns.

“I look forward to the next hearing of the subcommittee, on Civil War replica cannons and how dangerous those are as well,” Cruz said.

Richard Vasquez, a Virginia-based firearms regulatory consultant who previously worked for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, also criticized the proposed rule, saying it would only hinder law-abiding citizens and not criminals who would still find ways to access the guns.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Democrat from Connecticut who chaired the hearing, defended the proposed rules as critical steps to regulating weapons that are guns in every sense except for under federal law.

“There is nothing ghost-like about ghost guns. They look like guns. They shoot like guns. They kill like guns,” Blumenthal said, pointing to two images behind him, one of a standard gun and one of a ghost gun, and challenging those in the audience to tell them apart.

Shapiro described how a former Temple University football player was killed in Philadelphia by an individual who fired a ghost gun and who otherwise would have been barred from purchasing a gun after a background check.

The ease of purchasing these guns means they not only can be bought by people who otherwise could not buy a gun, but the weapons are also on the streets quickly, in a matter of days or even minutes, Shapiro said.

“It’s on us to figure out a way to protect law-abiding gun owners, to preserve our heritage, and not burden hobbyists, while still closing off violent criminals’ easy access to these unserialized, untraceable guns that do not require a background check,” he said.

Members of the public have three months to submit comments to the ATF on the proposed federal rule altering policies around ghost guns.