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State Attorneys General Oppose Online Sales of ‘Ghost Guns’

December 29, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Ghost gun kits for Glock 17 (9 mm) displayed at a gun show. (Photo via Bradyunited.org)

Nineteen state attorneys general filed an amicus brief this month supporting a lawsuit that seeks to require the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to regulate Internet sales of “ghost gun” components.

Ghost guns refer to homemade or improvised firearms that lack commercial serial numbers or a commercial firearm with its serial number removed, making them hard to trace by law enforcement. 

The components can be purchased easily in kits on the Internet. Instructional videos on YouTube show how the components that hold bullets can be drilled and remanufactured at home, then combined with unregulated other parts to make a fully functioning gun.

The do-it-yourself guns do not require background checks or licenses. They are linked to a growing number of violent crimes.

As police found increasing numbers of ghost guns associated with violent crimes, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia approved legislation banning the kits used to make them. Massachusetts and Illinois have bills pending that would ban them.

In Congress, a bill to ban ghost guns and the kits to make them is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

The attorneys’ general amicus brief filed this month in federal court in New York City argues the ATF needs to modify its 2015 interpretation of the Gun Control Act.

The ATF’s website explains its interpretation of the law by saying that “items such as receiver blanks, ‘castings’ or ‘machined bodies’ in which the fire-control cavity area is completely solid and un-machined have not reached the ‘stage of manufacture’ which would result in the classification of a firearm.”

Pro-gun advocates used the interpretation to expand sales of the kits that can be converted into guns, which prompted the attorneys’ general amicus brief.

An amicus, or amicus curiae brief, is a legal document filed in a pending court case by someone who is not a party to the case but who wants to assist by offering information, expertise, or insight relevant to the issues.

“The [Gun Control Act] defines ‘firearm’ as ‘any weapon which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive’ or ‘the frame or receiver of any such weapon,’” the attorneys general amicus brief says.

The brief characterizes the ATF’s failure to recognize the kits as firearms as a “misinterpretation” that “coincides with an exponential growth in the ghost gun industry.”

“Ghost guns were rarely recovered in [the states joining in the amicus brief] prior to the issuance of the misguided interpretive rule,” the brief says. “Since then, however, these weapons have spread increasingly across the country and are now a consistent and pervasive component of crime in our communities.”

The first ghost guns started showing up at crime scenes in 2017. Since then, the number of them has more than doubled every year, according to records of local police and the ATF.

One of the most notable ghost gun crimes was a 2017 shooting spree at Rancho Tehama Reserve in California. The gunman, 44-year-old Kevin Janson Neal, died by suicide after a police officer rammed his stolen vehicle. 

First he killed his wife, then two neighbors, followed by random shootings of passersby and vehicles. Five people were killed and 18 injured. Janson had manufactured the gun he used with a ghost gun kit.

Despite the controversy, gun rights activists support the private production of ghost guns, saying it is a Second Amendment Constitutional right of law-abiding Americans. Some of them have organized “build parties” where equipment and expertise are shared to help make ghost guns.

Their interpretation of the law contributed to a court’s reasoning for a warrant this month for federal agents to raid the plant of the nation’s largest ghost gun parts manufacturer in Dayton, Nev. The company, Polymer80, is accused of illegally making and distributing firearms, along with related charges.

The controversy focuses on Polymer80’s “Buy Build Shoot Kit,” which the company sells online. 

ATF agents say it is the equivalent of a gun while Polymer80 officials say there are not enough components in the kit to classify it as a firearm. The company calls the kits 80% receivers and frames.

The gun rights advocacy organization National Rifle Association supported Polymer80 with a statement after the raid that said, “The items require significant expertise, time, effort and specialized tools in order to be used to assemble a working firearm, therefore they do not meet the definition of a ‘firearm’ under federal statute or regulation.”

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