Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Monday announced he has closed a loophole in the state’s gun laws by classifying self-assembled gun kits – sometimes called “ghost guns” – as a firearm, making it illegal for felons and others not permitted to have a gun to possess.
Shapiro said his office’s agents have recovered more than 100 of these unserialized, untraceable firearms in Philadelphia this year alone but had no recourse to deal with unassembled so-called “80% receivers.” They are named that because they are the skeleton of a gun that is about 80% complete from being a functioning firearm.
He said they are an emerging threat to public safety and a growing concern to law enforcement.
A ghost gun also was found to have been used in a school shooting in Los Angeles last month that killed two students and injured three others. The gunman took his own life.
People can buy the 80% receiver as well as the rest of the parts and tools to assemble one into a functioning firearm without a background check at gun shows, gun shops, on the street, and online, he said.
“These are DIY firearms that lurk beneath the shadows often ending up in the hands of those who can’t legally buy a firearm on their own,” Shapiro said at a Capitol news conference where he was joined by Gov. Tom Wolf, members of the Pennsylvania State Police, and state legislators.
Until he issued his legal opinion at the request of the state police, Shapiro said law enforcement had no recourse to address the 80% receivers when they found them at a crime scene in the possession of felons and others who are barred from having a gun.
Not anymore. Shapiro said his office will be working with the state police to develop guidance that will be shared with gun vendors, gun shops and others who sell these kits.
Individuals were observed filling duffle bags of 80% receivers at a gun show in Montgomery County, he said. “During a gun show in York, agents observed a prohibited purchaser from making an 80% receiver into a fully functioning firearm without ever leaving the gun show and without ever going through a background check.”
Both he and Wolf emphasized this legal opinion that Shapiro issued under authority given him by the Commonwealth Attorneys Act is not infringing on the Second Amendment rights of legal responsible gun owners. It remains legal for an individual who is allowed under the law to possess a firearm to have an 80% receiver.
But Shapiro said, “If you are not allowed to own a firearm for whatever reason, we are here today to take the first step in working to ensure that these 80% receivers do not end up in your hands.”
Wolf said, “This change will stop criminals. It will stop terrorists and other lawless people who can’t pass a background check from acquiring a gun through a loophole that never should have existed in the first place.”
David Weber, NRA state director for Pennsylvania, was critical of the attorney general’s action.
“This is yet another example of an anti-gun politician attempting to contort the law in order to deny law-abiding Americans of their Second Amendment rights,” he said. “The Attorney General is claiming that something explicitly designed not to fire a projectile can, in fact, fire a projectile. Pennsylvania would be better served by a chief law enforcement officer who focuses on violent criminals instead of trying to ensnare law-abiding citizens in his quest to destroy our fundamental freedoms and rights.”
Meanwhile, Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFire PA, applauded Shapiro for stepping up and taking action to address this loophole that she said more and more criminals are taking advantage of although she suspects it may face a legal challenge.
“When these kits started, they were for really craft people. Gun owners who really wanted to be able to build their own gun and it was hard to do. It’s really gotten so much easier and much cheaper,” she said. “Once again, we’re seeing our executives, the attorney general and governor, take action when the folks who work in this building, the Legislature, isn’t. We’re grateful to have them.”
Nick Suplina, managing director for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety, echoed those praises for Shapiro.
“Attorneys General, policymakers and leaders at all levels of government should follow the lead of Attorney General Shapiro — particularly the ATF, which already has the power to act,” he said in a statement.
According to the Gifford Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, four states – California, Connecticut, New Jersey and Washington – have enacted laws to address undetectable and untraceable guns. New York has enacted a law to address undetectable firearms.