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Baltimore police report a 400% increase in untraceable ‘ghost guns,’ as legislators consider action

Baltimore police are reporting a staggering increase in "ghost guns" - weapons which can assembled at home, have no serial number and are difficult to trace.
Baltimore police are reporting a staggering increase in "ghost guns" - weapons which can assembled at home, have no serial number and are difficult to trace. (Haven Daley/AP)

The Baltimore Police Department said it saw a sharp increase last year in recoveries of so-called “ghost guns,” untraceable firearms that can be built from kits and are once again drawing the attention of state lawmakers.

Baltimore Police Lt. Col. John Herzog told legislators Wednesday that city police recovered 126 ghost guns last year, compared to 29 seized in 2019. The amount of ghost guns seized in Baltimore last year was more than the total number of ghost guns seized statewide in 2019, when 117 were recovered.

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“That’s an extremely dramatic increase,” Herzog said. “We know they are becoming more popular for criminals and gun traffickers.”

Ghost guns, termed “privately assembled firearms” by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, are legal for people to own and possess — unless they are prohibited from possessing firearms — and are typically ordered as kits online. According to the ATF, assembling a parts kit into a functional firearm can take as little as one hour with minimal effort, expertise and equipment, and they use the same type of ammunition as a traditional firearm.

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“In form and function, a conventional firearm and ghost gun are identical, except that ghost guns typically lack serial numbers and identifying markings that are required by federal law,” an ATF expert wrote in a filing in the case against Martrel Reeves, a DC rapper known as Fat Trel who pleaded guilty in the fall to possessing a ghost gun more than two years ago.

Maryland legislators have introduced a bill in the General Assembly that seeks to require serial numbers and registration for such firearms.

Separately, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, joined 11 other senators Thursday calling for President Joe Biden to quickly nominate a permanent ATF director “who is committed to increasing public safety, working with federal partners to investigate domestic terrorists, providing robust oversight of the firearms industry, and tackling our nation’s gun violence epidemic.”

In their letter, the senators highlight a number of priorities that they say the new ATF director must address immediately, including the proliferation of ghost guns.

“Ghost guns are the fastest growing public safety problems in our nation when it comes to gun violence,” Sam Levy of Everytown for Gun Safety told state legislators Wednesday. He called them the “weapon of choice for extremists, gun traffickers and prohibited persons of all stripes.”

The ghost guns recovered last year in Baltimore represented about 6 percent of the total number of firearms recovered by city police, which was about 2,200.

Herzog said 21 such guns were linked to violent crimes, including 15 that he said were directly linked to a homicide or shooting, either by being recovered at the scene or during follow-up investigations.

The Southwestern District, which had the most violence of the city’s nine police districts with 59 murders and 107 non-fatal shootings, also led the city in ghost gun recoveries, with 26, he said.

Levy said the weapons are “designed to subvert gun laws” — “a way for prohibited persons to access firearms they could not buy legally by passing a background check, a way to stymie law enforcement investigations for those who want to use those guns to commit crimes because they are untraceable.”

Highlighting the popularity of ghost guns, Del. Lesley Lopez, a Montgomery County Democrat who is pushing a bill in the House of Delegates, said she wanted to purchase a kit to assemble and show at a legislative hearing, but the parts were sold out.

Gun advocates say that legislators are pursuing restrictions that would infringe on hobbyists and that would be difficult to comply with.

“This is not a bill to address public safety, this is not a bill to address violence — it’s a bill to ban firearms by its very nature and structure, and there’s no way anyone can comply,” said John Josselyn, of 2A Maryland, a gun-owners advocacy group.

DJ Spiker of the National Rifle Association told legislators that only five states plus Washington, D.C., have implemented such restrictions, and that the guns continue to pop up in those jurisdictions.

“It’s a highly technical, difficult area of the law to understand for individual legislators and legislatures,” Spiker said.

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