Last Friday, a Montgomery County teen used a “ghost gun” to shoot a fellow student at Magruder High School in Rockville. The wounded 15-year-old remains hospitalized. The 17-year-old gunman was arrested on charges including attempted second-degree murder. Police were fortunate to have a suspect as the gun lacked a serial number and thus was untraceable. The 9-milimeter handgun had been assembled from parts acquired through the internet. County officials were so staggered by the incident that they are now considering installing metal detectors in high schools as well as bringing more police or “school resource officers” back into buildings.
A more basic question needs to be asked: Why are ghost gun kits permitted at all? Whatever fun assembling one’s own firearm may offer, the easy access to a deadly unregistered weapon they provide to criminals, kids and others who should not possess them badly outweighs any hobbyist’s delight. And this is surely not just about errant teens in Rockville. In Baltimore, the use of ghost guns to commit crimes is on the rise. City police report that they have seized 31 ghost guns during the first three weeks of the year, which puts the department on pace to seize 700 this year. And last year, Commissioner Michael Harrison reported that at least 69 acts of violence were traced to the 345 ghost guns recovered, and there’s a lot more where they came from. According to the advocacy group Moms Demand Action, more than 12,000 ghost gun kits were shipped to Maryland between 2016 and 2019.
Enough is enough.
This week, advocates, experts and victims alike assembled in Annapolis to call on the Maryland General Assembly to pass legislation banning the purchase, sale or transfer of “unfinished frames” of guns if they are unregistered. If that idea sounds familiar, it should. We called on lawmakers to take that action last year as well. And the year before that. But so far, nothing. Proposed legislation offered by Attorney General Brian Frosh has so far received a positive reception from Democrats but this is also an election year so it’s difficult to predict what may happen. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has neither endorsed nor promised to veto the measure. In either case, the proposal should not be regarded as especially controversial for Maryland given that at least 10 states and the District of Columbia have already taken similar action.
The usual suspects within the gun rights crowd hate such regulations, of course. But even they should acknowledge the harm caused by the proliferation of untraceable guns in criminal hands. The proposed legislation even offers the means for reputable owners to hold onto their handmade firearms. They would simply have to take their completed weapons to a federally-licensed dealer who would engrave a serial number on it. Antique firearms would be exempt. This is not an unreasonable burden given the terrible impact of gun violence in this state, particularly on Baltimore.
Maryland should not act alone. While Congress is unlikely to approve gun control legislation given the split in the U.S. Senate, there Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ought to soon finalize a proposed rule offered last May that would similarly regulate ghost guns nationally — a process that might have been somewhat easier if President Joe Biden could get an appointee to head the agency approved by the Senate.
Would regulating ghost guns put an end to gun violence that plagues this nation, especially cities like Baltimore where the most recent victims include a popular restaurant manager and a grandmother earning a few extra dollars delivering meals? Of course not. But easy access to such lethal weapons — particularly those that can’t be traced — is clearly a factor in the recent uptick of violence. Recent research shows that more than three-quarters of homicides last year were committed with a firearm. Often, the weapons used were purchased just seven months earlier. In other words, the rise in gun sales during the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled the subsequent rise in shootings.
What a shame that Governor Hogan state lawmakers have not acted sooner to close this loophole and keep ghost guns out of the hands of criminals whether on the streets of a city or the halls of a public high school.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.