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Baltimore plans to sue ‘ghost gun’ part maker as state law takes effect

Ghost guns that were secured by D.C. police in 2020. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
5 min

Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott said Tuesday that the city plans to sue Polymer80, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of “ghost gun” kits — untraceable firearms that have proliferated on city streets and contributed to a surge of violence.

Officials plan to file the suit Wednesday, the same day a state law to ban the sale, receipt and transfer of an unfinished frame or receiver that does not have a serial number by the manufacturer takes effect.

“Ghost guns are a devastating menace to the people of Baltimore,” Scott said in a statement. “The availability of these weapons — particularly to criminals, juveniles and other people who are prohibited from owning a firearm — presents a growing public health crisis. We do everything in our power to stop the companies involved in the proliferation of ghost guns and profit off of the destruction of our communities.”

Baltimore is the latest big city to announce plans to sue Polymer80. Two years ago, the D.C. attorney general filed a lawsuit against the company, and last year Los Angeles also took the company to court.

With gun restrictions stymied in Congress, President Biden took executive action in April that imposes a new rule on “ghost guns,” designed to tamp down the surge being felt across the country.

Maryland’s largest city has reported more than 300 killings annually in the past seven years, and city officials are grappling with ways to stem gun violence. Police recovered 352 ghost guns last year — an increase of more than 1,000 percent from 2019. So far this year authorities have seized 187 weapons with no serial numbers, according to a city spokesman. The police chief earlier this year said officers had connected 69 acts of violence to ghost guns that were recovered in 2021.

An official with Polymer80 did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The company in response to Biden’s rule announcement in April said it would “mount a rigorous defense of our Second Amendment rights” in an Instagram post of the president holding pieces of a ghost gun kit.

“Polymer80 will continue to operate lawfully,” the account stated. “Our products are still legal, however, please be sure to check your state and local regulations to ensure compliance.”

Law enforcement officials from local to federal levels have sought more tools to combat the growing use of the unmarked guns as violent crime has surged, but it’s too soon to gauge how successful early efforts to regulate them have been, said Alex McCourt, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of legal research for the Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

Gun deaths eclipsed car accidents as the leading killer of children and adolescents in 2020 and 2021, with Black youths age 1 to 19 dying because of guns three times as often any other group in those years, a Washington Post analysis found.

Local law enforcement officials say the explosive rate of gun seizures and the type of people — typically young males — who are increasingly using the firearms is frightening.

“It scares the hell out of me, and that’s coming from a guy who has 21 years of service in June,” said Montgomery County police Lt. Brent Kearney. Montgomery has recovered 100 ghost guns so far this year, surpassing its total for 2021. Prince George’s County officials say police recovered 27 ghost guns in 2019 and the number skyrocketed to 264 last year. In the first five months of this year, the department has already seized 151 firearms.

National debate over gun control has sharpened in recent weeks on the heels of mass shootings in New York and Texas that claimed a combined 31 lives, including those of 19 elementary school students.

The new federal rule will augment Maryland’s ban and the efforts of other states, including California, New Jersey and Connecticut, to address untraceable firearms, McCourt said.

Maryland’s law requires previously purchased weapons to be properly imprinted with a serial number by a federally licensed dealer. Possessing an unserialized ghost gun, which are assembled from parts and sold in kits on the Internet, becomes illegal on March 1, 2023.

The legislation was a top priority for Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh.

Maryland Del. Lesley J. Lopez (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the House bill, said there has been a surge in youth-related gun violence in Maryland and across the country that is connected to ghost guns.

Last week, a student in Prince George’s County was arrested and accused of bringing a disassembled ghost gun to Fairmont Heights High School. Earlier this year, a teenager allegedly shot a 15-year-old Montgomery County student in a high school bathroom using a ghost gun.

Lopez ordered a Polymer80 frame of an assault rifle to see how easy it would be to get.

“I recently purchased, you know, medication for seasonal allergies, and that was more difficult than what it was to purchase the receiver online,” she said Tuesday. Lopez showed the gun part during a virtual news conference earlier this year to rally for the bill. “It just asked for a physical mailing address and my credit card information. Nothing more.”

Lopez said the company that sold her the ghost gun did not ask her age, if she was subject to a protective order, whether she had a history of drug or alcohol abuse, or if she was a citizen — all of which are screening questions for owning a firearm in Maryland.