Baltimore is suing one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of “ghost guns,” alleging the company has flooded the city with untraceable, build-it-yourself firearms that have become more and more popular among criminals and contributed to pervasive bloodshed in the streets.
Filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, the lawsuit targets Polymer80 Inc., a Nevada-based gun manufacturer that sells kits with mostly complete guns and directions for customers to finish putting them together at home, and an Anne Arundel County gun shop, Hanover Armory LLC, that allegedly peddles those Polymer products less than 7 miles from city limits.
The law hasn’t considered gun kits as firearms, so manufacturers such as Polymer and dealers such as the one near BWI Marshall Airport have been able to sell parts of a firearm to customers without background checks. A new Maryland law, which took effect Wednesday, subjects gun parts to the state’s strict firearms regulations.
Baltimore’s lawsuit says that Polymer and Hanover Armory neglected to consider the foreseeable consequences of flooding the city with firearms in favor of profit. As a result, the complaint says, the city has suffered from violence and death ― and the ripple effects of ensuing trauma — along with paying for more emergency services and enduring a blow to the city’s coffers from a reduction of property values.
Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott called so-called “ghost guns” a “growing menace to the people of Baltimore,” citing their increasing connection to crime in the city and the challenge the firearms pose for law enforcement because those made without serial numbers make it nearly impossible for investigators to trace them to the seller or purchaser.
“As long as people who are not legally allowed to possess a firearm — young people, known violent offenders and gun traffickers — have the opportunity to build these tools of death and destruction and violence, we will not be able to build the safer future for Baltimore that we all want,” Scott said. “These weapons will continue to be used in crimes that tear loved ones away from their families and traumatize our communities.”
Scott was flanked at a news conference Wednesday by Deputy Police Commissioner Michael Sullivan; Dr. Joseph Sakran, director of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins Medicine; and Kris Brown, president of the nonprofit Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, which partnered with Baltimore’s law department and the law firm Sanford Heisler Sharp, to bring the suit.
A spokesperson for Polymer80 did not respond to multiple requests for comment, while an employee who answered the phone at Hanover Armory declined to comment and a person listed as its resident agent in state business records did not respond to a message. It’s unclear whether either business has been served.
Polymer already faces lawsuits from several cities, including Washington and Los Angeles, and Baltimore City Solicitor Jim Shea said Wednesday that his law department borrowed legal concepts from other jurisdictions’ complaints to frame Baltimore’s legal action.
While Shea said the city has not been able to enumerate the damages it incurred, he described them as “very, very substantial.”
Baltimore filed its lawsuit the same day Maryland’s ban on the so-called “ghost guns” took effect and as concerns continued to grow about the privately made firearms cropping up in connection to more and more crimes in the state’s largest city.
The use of “ghost guns” has skyrocketed in the city: Officers recovered nine in 2018, 29 in 2019, 126 in 2020 and 324 in 2021, according to Baltimore police statistics included in the complaint.
Police have confiscated 187 ghost guns to date this year — nearly twice as many as this time last year — and are on pace to seize 393 ghost guns by year’s end, city officials said. Such guns made up approximately 19% of all firearms recovered this year, a higher proportion than any year before.
Baltimore City School Police have confiscated three ghost guns during the current academic calendar, said Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the union that represents the officers.
The lawsuit says about 25% of all the ghost guns Baltimore police recovered were taken from people too young to legally own a gun in Maryland.
Polymer80 weapons accounted for 91% of the ghost guns recovered by police in Baltimore from January 2020 to this April, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit notes that the statistics refer only to the guns police recovered while investigating crimes; a gun is never found after many crimes, suggesting ghost guns are even more prevalent.
Last week, testimony at the trial of a man accused and later acquitted of killing Safe Streets leader Dante Barksdale revealed that the revered violence interrupter was killed with a “ghost gun” made in large part from a kit sold by Polymer80.
Thirty-two of the ghost guns recovered in 2021, the year Barksdale was gunned down, were linked to a homicide or nonfatal shooting, according to the complaint. The suit lists several other violent crimes involving Polymer80 guns. Police said Wednesday that 44 ghost guns have been “directly linked to violence” this year.
Sakran, the Johns Hopkins trauma surgeon, was struck by a stray bullet at 17 years old and now treats patients who were victims of gun violence in Baltimore. He called it “unacceptable” Wednesday that he still has to go into waiting rooms to tell parents “their child is never coming home again” and demanded a comprehensive approach to addressing gun violence, which he described as a public health crisis.
“There is very little I can do when someone comes in and is shot in the head,” said Sakran, who serves on the board of the Brady Campaign. “The best treatment is prevention.”
Los Angeles sued Polymer after two sheriff’s deputies were seriously wounded by a gunman wielding a firearm made from the company’s components during an ambush in 2020 and a 16-year-old gunned down three children in 2019 at a high school with a gun that featured Polymer parts.
The company sells several “80% pistol frame kits” and similarly complete kits for AR-15 semiautomatic rifles. The packages include several of the critical gun components, stamped with the company’s “P80″ logo but without a serial number. Customers can purchase other parts and put together firearms at home. Polymer keeps downloadable, step-by-step guides to assemble the kits on its website.
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Guns made from such kits circumvent background checks and lack sales documents and serial numbers, making it challenging, if not impossible, for law enforcement to trace the weapons back to purchasers.
Starting Wednesday, Maryland will expand the legal definition of a firearm to include unfinished frames and receivers, making those parts subject to the same regulations and requirements as fully functional weapons. It is illegal to buy or sell a firearm without a serial number or background check.
People in Maryland who have guns assembled from kits without serial numbers have until March 1, 2023, to have a serial number etched into their weapon. The law excludes antique firearms built before Oct. 22, 1968.
Baltimore’s lawsuit accuses Polymer and Hanover Armory of violating the federal Gun Control Act and several Maryland firearms regulations, including laws that mandate residents to get licenses to own handguns and register their pistols with the state. It alleges that the company created a public nuisance, acted with negligence and violated the Maryland Consumer Protection through false or misleading marketing.
A complement of solutions are required “to change the carnage that we are seeing across our country and in places like Baltimore,” Brady Campaign President Brown said including creating federal and state policy, changing social norms, enforcing existing laws and holding companies to account when they find ways around laws.
The lawsuit, Brown said, is “part of the solution and makes enforcement of our laws actually work.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Ngan Ho and Bryn Stole contributed to this article.