The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The rise of ghost guns in Maryland

Ghost guns that were confiscated by the D.C. police are pictured in 2020. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat, is the Maryland attorney general. Susan C. Lee, a Democrat, represents Montgomery County in the Maryland Senate. Lesley J. Lopez, a Democrat, represents Montgomery County in the Maryland House of Delegates.

The United States is inundated with guns by any measure. And even still, new types of firearms such as homemade “ghost guns” are being met by an eager market of individuals who would otherwise be restricted from gun ownership.

Just a few weeks ago, Montgomery County police found a loaded ghost handgun during a K-9 search of a fleeing 15-year-old suspect at Northwood High School. That’s why we are working across a broad coalition to ensure Marylanders are safe from this rising threat by passing comprehensive, common-sense legislation to ban ghost guns this session in Annapolis.

Already, there are more guns than there are people in our country. During the pandemic, the American appetite for guns only increased. This massive flood of new guns, however, doesn’t provide a complete picture of gun ownership because it excludes a fast-growing category of firearms that are purchased without a required federal background check. Ghost guns, assembled from do-it-yourself kits or with 3-D printers, can be easily acquired by those who are legally prohibited from owning a firearm. These privately made firearms — mostly Glock-style handguns and assault-style rifles — are not stamped with a serial number, making them nearly impossible to trace, depriving law enforcement agencies of an essential tool used to solve gun crimes.

Corporate gun manufacturers are raking in profits by exploiting this federal loophole, which we will address in upcoming legislation. The current definition of “firearm” set by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explo ch as industry leader Polymer80, aren’t required to apply a serial number or adhere to basic rules we require of traditional manufacturers.

Despite the self-righteous protests from the ghost gun industry that gunsmithing is a foundational American hobby, these kits are designed for ease, not for true craftsmen. Kits come with jigs that make drilling the requisite holes almost foolproof, and you can even purchase the machines to finish the firearms from the manufacturers themselves. An hour of simple modifications can result in a functional firearm. Unregistered “gunsmiths” can then sell the ghost guns at a premium to people otherwise prohibited from owning firearms — violent felons, minors and those with active restraining orders for domestic abuse.

That’s why nationally and locally, ghost guns are increasingly popular with criminal populations, including white-supremacist organizations. According to a recent report by the federal Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Team, domestic terrorists are increasingly using ghost guns to acquire weaponry and evade state and federal gun laws. In early 2020, three members of "The Base," a white-supremacist group, were arrested in Maryland in possession of a homemade assault rifle and more than 1,500 rounds of ammunition and an intent to commit violence to further white nationalism. In Baltimore City, guns used in criminal activity are increasingly ghost guns without serial numbers. As of November, the Baltimore Police Department had recovered 294 ghost guns, an increase from 126 recovered in 2020 and 29 in 2019. Likewise, Montgomery County police and Prince George’s County police recovered exponentially more ghost guns since they started tracking those figures several years ago. The numbers continue to grow all around Maryland with jurisdictions such as Anne Arundel County just now tracking these statistics.

The Biden administration has published a proposed ATF rule that would define unfinished frames and receivers as firearms. It is a relief to see federal actions to finally close this gaping loophole. But as with any federal action related to guns, challenges exist, and hundreds of thousands of comments on the proposed rule must be addressed before the final rule can be promulgated, and lawsuits will follow.

Last session, two of us — Lopez and Lee — led efforts to pass legislation to protect Marylanders from the scourge of ghost guns, but those efforts stalled out in the face of anarchic opposition. This year we must act. The numbers demonstrate a serious and growing problem in our communities that requires a serious response. Ten states and D.C. have already banned or otherwise addressed weapons without serial numbers, and it is past time for Maryland to join in before more of these untraceable weapons fall into the wrong hands.