Weapon of Choice: Ghost Guns on the Rise

As firearms have gone DIY, a Senate committee grappled Tuesday with what the United States is doing to restore order in the changing criminal landscape.

This screenshot from livestream shows Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison testifying remotely at a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Early in the morning on March 2, 2020, a fight broke out at a North Philadelphia bar between 22-year-old Anthony Nieves and 25-year-old Zaire Williams. It was soon broken up by a few onlookers, and Williams, a former Temple University football player, reportedly won the fight. But before the men could go their separate ways, Nieves took out a black Glock-style handgun and shot Williams in the head. 

After Nieves was arrested, police found that his handgun was unlicensed and lacking a serial number. He “would not have passed a background check, yet still got [his] hands on one of these,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Joshua Shapiro told the Senate Judiciary Committee early Tuesday. 

The Subcommittee on the Constitution convened to discuss how to deal with “ghost guns,” firearms that can be partially assembled through kits bought online or parts created by a 3D printer.  

Last Friday, the Justice Department proposed rulemaking to close a regulatory loophole that has prevented ghost guns from being classified as firearms. Up until that point, people could purchase ghost guns without a background check or serial number, making the guns undetectable. 

Subcommittee Chairman Richard Blumenthal, who’d proposed a ban on ghost guns last year, praised the notice: “This step is historic,” he said, “It’s commendable, it’s critical, but the rule must be made permanent. And until it is made irreversible with legislative action it can always be reversed by another president, which is why we’re holding this hearing today.” 

Ghost guns have become more popular among gun traffickers and criminal offenders, according to several panel witnesses. Attorney General Shapiro noted that former felons are buying assembly kits at gun shows and selling them on the streets for a 100% markup. 

“We’ve made arrests where ghost guns purchased at gun shows are on the streets literally the next day after that purchase,” he said. 

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison chimed in that, for gun traffickers in major cities like his and in New York, ghost guns had become the “weapon of choice.”

“So far in 2020, we’ve recovered 83 privately made firearms,” he said, “which means that we are far outpacing last year.” Many of the guns were seized from people under 21 years old. 

Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at Tuesday’s hearing. (Image via Courthouse News)

But Republicans on the committee, like Ranking Member Ted Cruz, worried that ghost guns were another scapegoat for Democrats to issue stricter gun-control laws. “The so-called ghost guns that we’re talking about are nothing but homemade firearms,” the Texas Republican said. “There’s nothing special about them. There’s nothing weird about them.” 

Cruz accused gun-control advocates of deliberately using the charged term to stoke fear among the public. “The Democrats on this committee want to trace every firearm in America,” he said. 

Senator Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, described the phrase “ghost guns” as a “vague and intentionally scary-sounding term that’s been designed by gun-control activists” to describe any firearm that doesn’t have a serial number.  

“This broad set of firearms might include antique firearms,” he said, “or some curios or relics produced prior to 1968” — that is, when the Gun Control Act, regulating the production and sale of firearms, was passed. 

He asked Ashley Hlebinsky, a firearms scholar and president of The Gun Code, why Congress decided not to serialize homemade guns in 1968. Serial numbers were originally used “as a sort of assembly number” on firearms, rather than a tool to track them, she explained. 

Lee then questioned whether the proposed gun laws would “naturally lead” to a national gun registry, even if that’s not what advocates intend. 

By the end, Blumenthal asked the law enforcement officials, Shapiro and Harrison, a simple question: “Would putting serial numbers on ghost guns — in other words, eliminating ghost guns — help save lives?” They both agreed. 

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