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Lawsuit Challenges Law Banning ‘Ghost Gun’ Sales

October 12, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Dick Heller, of District of Columbia v. Heller, speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — Guns are again playing a big role in the courts and politics of Washington, D.C. after a champion of Second Amendment rights filed a new federal lawsuit to challenge a local law that seeks to restrict some firearms. 

This time, Dick A. Heller is challenging the District of Columbia’s “ghost gun” law and its ban on manufacturing weapons.

Ghost guns are homemade or assembled firearms that lack the commercial serial numbers police could use to track them to their owners.

Members of the District of Columbia Council said when they outlawed ghost guns in March 2020 that they are increasingly showing up at violent crime scenes.

They also mentioned the heightened dangers of violence to the city and the nation while the U.S. capital is home to government leaders.

Nevertheless, Heller’s lawsuit filed last month in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia says, “If the situation continues, District law would deny the people the means to exercise their Second Amendment rights and unintentionally outlaw existing firearms in the hands of both the people and the police.”

If Heller wins his lawsuit, it would be the second time he handed a major defeat to the D.C. Council over their gun ownership restrictions.

In 2008, Heller won a landmark Supreme Court decision that protected a private citizen’s right to keep and bear arms unrelated to military or law enforcement service.

The ruling invalidated a District of Columbia handgun ban as well as a requirement saying lawfully owned rifles and shotguns must be “unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock.”

With rhetoric similar to his 2008 court filings, Heller’s new lawsuit says, “Never missing an opportunity for erroneously defining firearms terminology, the District legislation in question is so poorly thought out and written that the City Council has managed to criminalize the possession of a vast array of popular, common handguns that it regularly allows residents to register, including the very handgun it issues to its police officers.”

A victory for Heller also would preempt an effort in the federal government and some states to ban ghost guns.

The Biden administration proposes rules to restrict sales of the polymer frames and receivers that house internal components of guns.

In July 2020, Reps. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and David Cicilline, D-R.I., introduced House Resolution 7468, which would ban ghost guns. So far, the bill has not made it to a final vote in Congress.

In addition, a group of state attorneys general is suing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to compel the federal agency to regulate the unfinished gun parts.

Under current federal law, firearms can be sold for self-protection but they require a license to manufacture and carry them. They also must be inscribed with unique serial numbers.

Ghost guns get around the law by being manufactured in components that fall short of a complete gun requiring a license. They often are sold through the Internet under the unofficial name of “80% receivers.”

Completing the gun assembly can be done with common tools, such as drill presses. Companies that don’t make the receivers will instead sell the drill bits and jigs needed to finish the manufacturing and assembly.

Gun advocates with expertise in using the equipment have organized “build parties” in which they assist purchasers of the incomplete guns in completing the manufacturing.

They claim a Second Amendment constitutional right. They also say assembling the guns themselves without registering them protects their privacy.

Unlike previous successful attempts to overturn District of Columbia gun restrictions, gun advocates face tougher legal obstacles in Heller’s new lawsuit. 

In July, a federal judge in Nevada upheld the state’s law against ghost guns, which is similar to the laws found in the District of Columbia and several states.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du wrote in her decision that under the law, gun owners “are not stripped of an opportunity to self-manufacture and assemble firearms and constituent parts so long as they are serialized.”

The law “does not severely burden Second Amendment protected conduct, but merely regulates it,” Du said.

Her order called the state law “a reasonable fit for achieving the government’s objectives of decreasing the threat that unserialized firearms pose to public safety and preserving law enforcement’s ability to trace firearms related to violent crimes.”

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