2022 | Government

Advocates, officials focus on ‘ghost gun’ crackdown after Magruder shooting

State lawmakers from Montgomery County sponsor ban bill; lawsuit against county on hold

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Advocates for gun safety legislation, including a bill that would ban the transactions of ghost guns in Maryland, rallied in Annapolis on Tuesday.

Photo by Alison Rodner

Lawmakers and gun-control advocates are renewing efforts for a crackdown on privately made firearms known as “ghost guns.”  

The push comes after a 17-year-old student at Col. Zadok Magruder High School allegedly used a ghost gun to shoot a 15-year-old student, critically injuring him, according to county police.

Ghost guns, built by people who are unlicensed, don’t have serial numbers and can evade metal detectors. They can be made with 3D printers and through kits that don’t require a background check for purchase.

Montgomery County has a law restricting the sale of ghost guns, but it is being challenged in court.

Ghost guns are also being targeted at the federal level.

Last year, the Department of Justice proposed a rule change that would update the definition of firearm and its parts to close the “ghost gun loophole” associated with unserialized, privately made firearms. The rule would make it clear that gun sellers must perform background checks before selling gun kits, and that they include a serial number on the frame or receiver.

The recent effort to ban ghost guns through legislation at the state level comes amidst an uptick in gun violence in Montgomery County. State’s Attorney John McCarthy said this week that ghost gun seizures in the county increased fivefold in two years, from 16 in 2019 to 70 in 2021.

McCarthy also said that last week, two ghost guns were seized from the same school.

According to county prosecutors, the Magruder student charged with shooting the 15-year-old allegedly bought the ghost gun online and assembled it with the help of a friend.

McCarthy told reporters on Monday that he is particularly concerned about children gaining access to these types of guns.

“Kids can get them, kids can build them and kids can use them,” he said.

Other recent incidents involving ghost guns in the county include a shooting outside the Plum Gar Community Recreation Center in Germantown last summer, in which a 14-year-old boy killed one and injured three, according to police.

And on Jan. 14 just before 7 a.m., Montgomery County police said, 27-year-old Jesus Guadalupe Luque-Santaclaya was arrested after he allegedly had a loaded assault rifle on the campus of Gaithersburg High School. McCarthy said on Monday that the gun was a ghost gun.

Last week, McCarthy and Attorney General Brian Frosh voiced support for a state bill that would prohibit transactions of any ghost gun in Maryland after Jan. 1, 2023.

The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by state Sen. Susan Lee (D-Bethesda) and the House version is sponsored by Del. Lesley Lopez (D-Germantown).

Police Chief Marcus Jones told Bethesda Beat in an interview on Wednesday that he supports efforts at both the state and national level to crack down on ghost guns.

“I think to have an unregulated firearm of these types, it’s already proven to be detrimental to our communities,” he said. “And so it’s only going to get worse if we don’t try to step in and do something about it soon.”

On Tuesday, 125 to 150 people attended a rally in Annapolis advocating for gun safety legislation, organized by the Maryland chapter of the advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

Maryland chapter Leader Melissa Ladd told Bethesda Beat in an interview that the event was planned in advance as part of the group’s annual lobbying efforts at the state level, before the Magruder shooting.

Ladd, who lives near Magruder and is a substitute teacher at an elementary school that feeds into the school, said no community is immune to gun violence, even though there hasn’t been a school shooting in Montgomery County in recent memory.

“You hear about it on the news all the time. You never think it’s going to be a school near you, and then here we were,” she said. “We’ve been working on regulating ghost guns for four years. The legislature didn’t have the same urgency that we did, and within the last seven months, there’s been two instances of children shooting other children in Montgomery County with ghost guns.”

Ladd said Moms Demand Action supports Lee’s and Lopez’s bills, and are optimistic about their passage in the session.

Ladd, who has two children in high school, said she worries about the current generation of school children that has grown up with “gun violence in their face” nationally.

“Ever since my kids have been in kindergarten, they’ve had to practice active shooter drills. I feel like this generation of kids have just been taught that this is normal,” she said.

Lily Freeman, a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda and member of the subgroup Students Demand Action, also spoke at Tuesday’s rally.

She told Bethesda Beat in an interview afterward that she was devastated, but not surprised when she heard about the shooting at Magruder last week.

“Gun violence is a normal part of our lives, and to me, it’s never really surprising when it happens. And it’s very easy to become numb to,” she said.

Freeman said she remembers one day at Whitman in which students practiced a different type of safety drill in each period, including an active shooter drill during her AP literature class.

She said that someone in the classroom suggested that the door could be barricaded with desks during an active shooter situation. But another person then pointed out that the classroom doors open out to the hallway, rendering the idea useless.

Freeman said she hopes the Magruder shooting raises more awareness about the ghost gun issue.

“I think it became all the more apparent that Marylanders can no longer go on living in a state where deadly, untraceable weapons threaten our communities,” she said.

Lawsuit against county’s ghost gun ban on hold

In April 2021 the County Council passed a law prohibiting people from transferring ghost guns to minors, storing the gun’s parts in a place accessible to minors, and transferring or selling firearms created with a 3D printer within 100 yards of a place of public assembly.

A month after the council passed the restrictions, Maryland Shall Issue, a Baltimore nonprofit that advocates for gun ownership rights, filed a lawsuit against the county on behalf of six local residents and two gun-related businesses.

The lawsuit alleges that the county law is overly broad and doesn’t comply with state law, which currently allows individuals to manufacture firearms for personal use.

Mark Pennak, an attorney who represents the plaintiffs who is also the president of Maryland Shall Issue, told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that in addition to several claims the lawsuit is bringing under state law, it also alleges a due process violation under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution due to the county law being vague.

The lawsuit was originally filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, but Pennak said the county exercised its option to move the case into federal court.

“And in federal court, we exercised our option to ask the federal court to send back to the state court the state law claims, and to keep the federal claim in federal court,” he said.

Pennak also previously submitted testimony to the County Council last year stating that the county’s law goes against the Second Amendment to the Constitution by simply banning the possession of ghost guns within 100 yards of a public place.

“In short, assembly of new homemade guns and existing possession is permitted as long as this serial number is obtained, engraved and reported,” he wrote in the testimony. “In this way, the owner is identified and the gun is fully ‘traceable’ and thus no longer a so-called ‘ghost gun.’ As this law indicates, there is no reason to take the extreme step of flatly banning homemade guns or converting existing owners into criminals.”

Pennak said on Tuesday that nothing can happen until a federal judge rules on whether to remand state claims back to circuit court. He said he wants the state claims to be adjudicated prior to the federal claim.

“We believe that state court will act much more swiftly than the federal court, and the state courts have much more experience in adjudicating the main claims in the case, which are state law claims,” he said.

With the potential of state legislation restricting ghost guns coming in the legislative session, Pennak said it’s likely that it would preempt the county’s existing ban anyway.

“One of the things that we’re arguing in state court is that the county has exceeded its authority and jurisdiction by passing this statute. [The state ghost gun] bill, if it passes, will simply add more fuel to that argument …,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com