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Maryland advocates push for ban on unregistered ‘ghost’ guns

Top Maryland lawmakers vowed Tuesday to ban “ghost guns” in the state this year, hoping to disrupt the supply of unregistered and untraceable guns that can be bought easily online, sidestepping background checks.

Efforts to ban ghost guns have languished in Annapolis the past few years, but lawmakers and activists are making a renewed push for the ban as the weapons are becoming more common.

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“It is clearer now than ever that we need to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous extremists, as well as those who are in crisis and pose a danger to themselves or others,” said Melissa Ladd, state chapter leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

Ladd was among dozens of Moms Demand members in red T-shirts, jackets and surgical masks who gathered Tuesday in Annapolis to make a public push for the ban on ghost guns. The members planned to have video meetings with more than 140 of the state’s 188 lawmakers on Wednesday.

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Ghost guns are generally sold as kits that are 80% complete, typically with no serial number, that purchasers finish putting together themselves. Buying gun kits online allows purchasers to avoid Maryland’s requirements for gun ownership, including background checks and, in the case of handguns, a training course and a special license.

Opponents say banning ghost guns could cause otherwise law-abiding gun owners and hobbyists to be charged with a crime and that Maryland should wait on pending federal rules to restrict sales of the weapons.

Supporters of the ban pointed to a shooting Friday at Magruder High School in Montgomery County as an example of why there’s a need to stem the supply of ghost guns. One teenager shot another in a school bathroom with a ghost gun.

The 17-year-old shooter bought the parts for the 9 mm gun online and built it with a friend, according to a prosecutor. The 15-year-old who was shot remains in the hospital fighting for his life.

Lilly Freeman, a student at Montgomery County’s Walt Whitman High School, said young people feel like their pleas for help that come after each school shooting — from Virginia Tech to Marjory Stoneman Douglas — aren’t heard.

“It feels almost pointless to say that I am numb and I am devastated. Of course I am. Of course I am,” said Freeman, a leader with the Students Demand Action group. “But I have been made to feel that my emotions don’t matter, students’ emotions don’t matter, because we have seen such little change in our lives when it comes to gun violence.”

The ghost guns ban has the backing of Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh, and the chairs of the legislature’s judicial committees pledged to pass the bills in their committees this year. That would lead to debates before the full House of Delegates and state Senate.

“In the Judicial Proceedings Committee, we’re going to pass this bill this year,” said Sen. William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs that committee.

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“It’s time to do this,” added Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has not offered a public position on the ghost gun ban and a spokesman said Tuesday that the governor “will thoughtfully review any legislation that reaches his desk.”

Hogan has supported past gun legislation, including a “red flag” program that allows for guns to be temporarily taken away if a judge finds a person might harm themselves or others. But Hogan is in his last year in office and weighing options for his political future, and gun control is not popular among Republicans.

The ban has been considered in Annapolis for five years now, said Del. Lesley Lopez, the lead sponsor in the House of Delegates.

“It’s a full-court press,” said Lopez, a Montgomery County Democrat. “We’ve got the momentum, we’ve got the movement and we’re ready to get this done.”

The ghost gun bill would ban buying, selling and transferring an “unfinished frame or receiver” if it does not have a serial number imprinted by a licensed manufacturer starting June 1.

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Starting Jan. 1, 2023, it would be illegal to own a gun without the serial number, a misdemeanor punishable by up to three years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. The ban would not apply to guns manufactured before 1968 or antique firearms

Lopez said those who already own handmade or ghost guns would be able to go to a federally-licensed firearms dealer to have a serial number and manufacturing information engraved on the weapon.

Police say they are recovering an increasing number of ghost guns at crime scenes. In the first three weeks of the year, 31 of the 187 guns seized by Baltimore Police Department officers have been ghost guns.

Last year, city officers sized 324 ghost guns, representing about 14% of all guns seized. That’s a steep increase from 128 ghost guns seized in 2020, and 30 seized in 2019.

In addition to the Magruder High School shooting, a Westminster teen was fatally injured by a ghost gun at a home in Dundalk last week. Police have charged a man with failing to secure the gun in the home and illegal possession of a gun because he is a felon and prohibited from having guns.

Advocates for gun rights are expected to register their opposition to the ban, saying bad actors who get ghost guns can — and should — be punished under existing gun laws.

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Sen. Justin Ready, a Carroll County Republican, said he’s skeptical that banning ghost guns would make a dent in violent crime. He suggested that those with violent intentions who are determined to get their hands on untraceable guns still will find a way to do so.

“I would have a lot more respect for these gun control groups if they came in strong supporting the bills cracking down on the people that commit violent acts,” said Ready, who supports tougher sentences for certain gun crimes and has been trying to make theft of a firearm a felony.

Hobbyist gun owners could get caught up in the ban and risk losing their ability to buy firearms forever, said Mark Pennak, president of the advocacy group Maryland Shall Issue.

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“What we can’t have is the General Assembly passing laws that threaten to send away and permanently disqualify law-abiding people, when the state’s attorneys — particularly in Baltimore — don’t enforce these laws,” Pennak said in an interview.

If lawmakers insist on banning ghost guns, then they at least could improve the grandfathering provision, Pennak said. He suggests following California’s procedure, which requires ghost gun owners to send to the state information about the gun and the owner’s eligibility to own one. The state then sends the gun owner a serial number that has to be engraved or otherwise permanently marked on the weapon.

Better yet, Pennak said, the state should wait for the adoption of federal regulations proposed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that would define the most common ghost gun kits as firearms. That’s likely to significantly curtail the sale of gun kits online.

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“A lot of this problem is going to be addressed by the ATF regulations that will establish nationwide standards to address the interstate sale of these kits,” he said.

There’s no need to wait for the federal government, said Sen. Susan Lee, lead sponsor of the ban in the Senate.

“We’re not going to wait around for the federal government to finally do it … The regulatory process takes 1,000 years,” said Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat. “We’ve got to protect Marylanders now.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.


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