By Donald C. Fry
President & CEO, Greater Baltimore Committee
This commentary was published in The Daily Record on February 18, 2022.
It’s no secret that the digital revolution is rapidly changing our lives and purchasing power, but perhaps few with such alarming potential public safety consequences as the sale of gun parts, individually and in kits, over the Internet so that virtually anyone with a credit card number can buy and assemble a gun at home.
The ease with which gun parts and kits can be acquired online, regardless of a buyer’s age or criminal background, is deeply troubling. But also of grave concern to law enforcement and criminal justice officials in Maryland is the fact that the parts and kits are sold with no serial number.
Hence their nickname: Ghost guns.
The lack of a serial number makes it near impossible to track who purchased the gun parts or kits should, for example, the gun be seized as evidence in a crime, adding an onus on police and prosecutors to build a case.
It is not difficult to find on the Internet sellers offering ghost gun parts and kits. And it’s not just cheap revolvers. Shockingly, you can find entire kits for an AR-15 rifle, a deadly assault weapon that typically is equipped with a 30-round magazine.
Meanwhile, there is quite a bit of online competition and aggressive marketing for ghost guns, including discount offers for providing an email address, just like most retailers offer these days when visiting their website.
For example one seller’s website offers a 10% discount on a first order and solicits signing up for its newsletter this way: “The ghost guns market is changing fast. Sign up for the Ghost Guns newsletter to be ahead of the feds.”
Fortunately, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh came out publicly last month to lead an effort in the 90-day Maryland General Assembly session, which convened January 12, to ban the sale and ownership of ghost guns in the state.
Legislation introduced in the General Assembly would prohibit the sale, receipt or transfer of ghost guns or their parts, beginning June 1. Possession of such firearms would be banned January 1, 2023. Penalties called for in the proposed bill include up to three years in jail, a fine of up to $10,000 or both. Exemptions are allowed for antique guns and those manufactured before 1968, the year the federal Gun Control Act was passed.
The proposed legislation has strong merit and should be passed, hopefully with bipartisan support to send a convincing message.
In testimony submitted in support of the legislation in House (H.B. 425), the Greater Baltimore Committee noted that “data shows that ghost guns are a growing threat to the safety of Marylanders. The removal of that threat is a necessary step to improve public safety.”
As if to put a point on this, consider that a 17-year-old Montgomery County high school student was charged last month with attempted murder after he allegedly shot a 15-year-old student in a school bathroom with a handgun. A ghost gun was found inside the school, police said, and is believed to be the gun used in the attack.
If a 17-year-old – not even old enough to vote or purchase alcohol – can get their hands on a ghost gun, imagine what seasoned criminals are thinking about the advantages such guns offer. Just hop on the Internet at home, pick out gun parts or kits, and hit the “buy now” button. Officials in other states and at the federal level are also alarmed.
Data from just one large jurisdiction in Maryland highlights what police and prosecutors are up against.
Last year in Baltimore City, which has been wrestling with an obscene amount of gun violence since 2015, police seized 352 ghost guns, according to Baltimore City Police records.
Seizures continue in 2022. As of February 8, 51 ghost guns had been seized, according to police records. Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison predicts the number of ghost guns seized in Baltimore this year will double from last year, putting the city on track to collect 700 such weapons – a prospect he calls “frightening.”
In 2018, just 9 ghost guns were seized by police. The statistic highlights the meteoric rise in their proliferation. Such a dramatic rise in seizures begs the question if they are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg of what’s on the streets.
Opponents of the legislation contend that banning ghost guns will result in law-abiding citizens being charged with a crime and that anyone who wants to do an end-run around Maryland law, if passed, could just drive to another state to make an online purchase.
These are red herrings legislators should dismiss.
Maryland – Baltimore City in particular with its annual 300+ murders – has an unacceptable level of gun violence. Police and prosecutors need every tool they can get to curb the proliferation of guns, especially those that leave no trace when a crime is committed.
Donald C. Fry is President & CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to The Daily Record.