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Politics

Maryland to outlaw so-called ‘ghost guns’ after Gov. Hogan decides against veto

A ban on so-called “ghost guns,” difficult-to-trace weapons that lack serial numbers or are sold in pieces to evade Maryland’s background check rules, will go into effect after Gov. Larry Hogan announced Friday that he would not veto the measure.

Regulating so-called “ghost guns” has been a top priority of gun control advocates for several years but was opposed by many gun-rights groups. Some top law enforcement officials have also pressed for tighter rules, with Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and others telling lawmakers that such weapons are showing up with greater frequency at crime scenes.

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The new ban and regulations “is a positive step as we seek to stem the tide of violent crime,” Hogan wrote in a letter to state lawmakers, “which is why I am allowing it to take effect.”

But Hogan went on to criticize the Democrat-controlled General Assembly for not taking action on his separate proposal to lengthen prison sentences for crimes involving firearms. The ghost gun legislation, Hogan wrote, “does nothing to penalize those who actually pull the trigger on firearms and deflects away from the need to take decisive action to hold violent criminals accountable.”

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Hogan and fellow Republicans in the General Assembly have pushed his package of harsher criminal penalties for gun crimes repeatedly over recent years but it has been repeatedly blocked by Democrats in the House of Delegates. The proposal has yet to receive a vote in either chamber and, with the legislative session now in its final days, appears destined to fail again this year.

The Republican governor is facing a Friday deadline to decide whether to veto a stack of controversial legislation delivered to his desk last Friday by Democratic leaders, a move to guarantee lawmakers enough time to override any Hogan vetoes. The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn at midnight Monday.

In addition to the “ghost gun” restrictions, Hogan must make decisions on legislation to expand access to abortion, create a statewide paid family and medical leave insurance program for nearly all workers, reform the state’s juvenile justice system and a sweeping package aimed at combating climate change, among others.

All of the issues faced Republican opposition in the General Assembly and are largely unpopular with Republican voters. Hogan, who is term-limited and leaving office, is widely believed to be weighing a campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

Backers of the new firearms restrictions are primarily seeking to stop an influx of firearms purchased in kits off the internet and assembled at home. Because the weapons are typically bought in pieces, and not as a finished firearm, buyers can effectively evade current background check requirements.

The weapons can also be particularly difficult for law enforcement to trace, both because there is no paper trail of background checks and sales documents and because the parts typically lack serial numbers that could lead investigators back to the buyer.

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That’s left a major loophole in Maryland’s firearms regulations, at least in the eyes of gun-control advocates and law enforcement officials. Champions of the new legislation contend it’ll close the gap and give the state an important new tool to stem the supply of weapons used in violent crimes. State Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, personally led the push for the new restrictions with the backing of many prosecutors, police chiefs and sheriffs.

Some Republican lawmakers and gun rights groups, however, argued that the new restrictions could ensnare well-intentioned gun owners while a few critics on the left raised concerns that the police will selectively enforce the new law — like existing firearms restrictions — by disproportionately arresting and incarcerating people from lower-income communities of color.

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The “ghost gun” legislation would change the legal definition of a firearm to include unassembled frames or receivers, two keys parts needed to assemble a working gun. The change would require anyone buying those parts to submit to the same background check and other requirements as anyone buying a fully assembled working weapon.

Buying, selling or transferring an unfinished frame or receiver without a serial number would become a misdemeanor punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The legislation would also crack down on other firearms that lack serial numbers. Knowingly possessing a firearm without a serial number would become a misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The bill exempts antiques firearms and any weapons manufactured before October 22, 1968 from the requirements.

Anyone who owns a weapon outlawed by the legislation will be able to register the gun with the Maryland State Police and have it imprinted with a traceable serial number — as long as they meet the existing criteria for owning a firearm.

This is a developing story. More to come.


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