As of Sept. 14, the Baltimore Police Department had confiscated 323 “ghost guns” so far this year. These are firearms assembled from parts that are potentially untraceable; they have become the preferred weapon for those seeking to avoid federal and state gun regulations. Last year, the city had confiscated 231 such weapons by Sept. 14, which means there’s been a 33% increase. And that’s just over the last year: In 2020, the city confiscated 126 ghost guns and in 2019, just 29.
Recognizing this rising threat, the Maryland General Assembly earlier this year passed a law banning anyone from buying a gun or even its major component, an “unfinished frame or receiver,” unless it included a serial number or similar personal identification code. The new law went into effect on June 1. In August, it was overtaken by federal regulations imposed by the Biden administration that mandate that all gun “kits” similarly include identifying serial numbers and can’t be purchased without a background check just like other firearms.
While it’s too early to judge the law’s effectiveness, it’s not too early to recognize a possible menace to its future. Last Friday, a federal judge barred the state of Delaware from enforcing its statewide ban on ghost guns, signed into law in October. The Delaware law isn’t just about serial numbers, of course. The state approved an outright ban on all ghost guns, but the preliminary injunction granted by U.S. District Court Judge Maryellen Noreika follows the familiar argument that certain gun rights groups have been pushing all along: that restricting the purchase, sale or manufacture of ghost guns represents a violation of the Second Amendment. Judge Noreika also rejected the arguments that taking away ghost guns is not burdensome to ordinary gun buyers and that ghost guns are not usually possessed by law-abiding citizens using them for lawful purposes.
This is exactly where the federal judiciary is at risk of going too far — just as the U.S. Supreme Court did in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, striking down New York’s century-old law requiring a license to carry concealed weapons in public places as unconstitutional. Weighing the rights of the individual to have less fettered access to firearms (including where and how they can carry them) versus the rights of the many to not be shot by individuals carrying around guns, the conservative majority went with the gunslingers. The fateful choice caused Maryland to suspend enforcement of its own similar law in July.
Now, we can certainly appreciate that there are hobbyists out there who get tremendous joy from constructing their own weapons. Some of them may even find it annoying that they now have to make those guns traceable. But that burden seems trivial compared to the price paid in places like Baltimore by criminals packing heat. But the problem is not just the city’s. According to FBI data, of the 490 homicides reported in Maryland in 2020 — more than 80% of which involved a firearm — 155 of them were outside Baltimore. Simply put: Guns enable killers to commit murder.
Limiting ghost guns seem like an easy call when it comes to weighing their benefits versus societal costs. That’s not to deny the presence of the Second Amendment, but no constitutional right is absolute. As the saying goes: Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. The Supreme Court’s decision to toss Roe v. Wade this year has gotten a lot of attention as an attack on women’s health, and deservedly so, but there are many other areas where the nation’s highest court also seems poised to make life worse for many Americans. As Justice Clarence Thomas predicted, the conservative majority may soon be coming for contraception and same-sex marriage. Can striking down an effort to keep untraceable guns out of the hands of people who should not have them be far behind?
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.