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Md. Senate, House pass conflicting ‘ghost gun’ ban bills

‘Ghost guns,’ made from build-it-yourself kits, are virtually untraceable. Maryland’s Senate and House have passed measures to ban possession of the weapons, but the measures will have to be reconciled to send along to Gov. Larry Hogan to be signed into law. (AP Photo/Haven Daley, File)

The Maryland Senate and House of Delegates have passed conflicting legislation to ban the possession of “ghost guns,” the increasingly prevalent untraceable firearms that can be assembled at home with parts bought online, regardless of the assembler’s age or criminal history.

The Senate voted 35-11 on Wednesday for a measure that would put the ban in place on March 1, 2023. The House voted 94-41 earlier this month for a bill that would make the prohibition effective two months earlier, on Jan. 1.

Under Senate Bill 387, the criminal penalties for possessing the unserialized guns would apply only if the possessor knew or reasonably should have known the firearm was not imprinted with a serial number. The stricter House Bill 425 would impose criminal penalties regardless of whether the possessor knew or should have known of the serial number’s absence.

Both bills would give lawful owners of unserialized firearms — such as gun hobbyists — until the day before the ban takes effect to either sell their weapons or have them properly serialized by a licensed firearms dealer.

Failure to do so under the House bill would be punishable up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000, a sanction that would make the offender ineligible to possess a gun. The Senate legislation would make failure a misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000, a penalty that would not prohibit the offender from ever possessing a firearm.

Both measures would have the law go into effect on June 1, when the sale, receipt, or transfer of unfinished ghost gun frames and receivers not serialized by the manufacturer would be prohibited in Maryland.

The Senate and House bills will each be considered by the opposing chamber and potentially by a conference committee of senators and delegates with the hope of reaching a compromise on the bills’ remaining differences and gaining final passage of the legislation before the General Assembly session ends at 12 a.m. April 12.

The ghost gun legislation was introduced in the Senate and House at the request of Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, who said the weapons are “becoming the gun of choice for criminals” because “they can be assembled in an hour or two and they can’t be traced.”

The proposed ban is supported by Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, who each told lawmakers last month that ghost guns are being used more frequently.

Elrich, in pressing for the ban, cited a 17-year-old student’s alleged shooting of a 15-year-old pupil with a ghost gun in January at Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood.

“We cannot let ourselves become number to gun violence,” Elrich told the House committee.

The alleged shooter, Steven Alston Jr. has been charged with attempted second-degree murder.

But gun rights advocate Mark W. Pennak said Friday that a state ban is unnecessary due to soon-to-be issued federal regulations that will prohibit the distribution of unserialized kits.

“This is much ado about nothing,” said Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue. “It has become a politicized issue.”

Both bills are “a product of political consideration rather than legal consideration,” he added.

Pennak said each measure would result in law-abiding gun hobbyists facing potential prison sentences. Neither SB 387 nor HB 425 would provide hobbyists enough time to get their weapons serialized by the limited number of federally licensed dealers, he said.

Pennak called the Senate bill the lesser of the two evils because at least its penalty for those possessing unserialized hobby guns would not entail a lifetime ban on firearm ownership.

He praised Sens. Michael J. Hough and Jack Bailey, both gun rights advocates, for successfully pressing for the rights-saving two-year prison sentence when the original bill’s three-year punishment was being considered by the Judicial Proceedings Committee on which they serve.

Hough and Bailey also called for making possession a crime only if the possessor knew or reasonably should have known the gun was unserialized.

Pennak called the senators’ efforts to protect gun owners from more stringent legislation “gutsy” in light of the opposition they knew they would face from constituents opposed to any weakening of gun rights.

Hough and Bailey are “taking heat” for their support of the legislation, which they pledged in order to get the amendments approved, Pennak said. “These people should not be taking heat for it.”

Hough, in explaining his vote for the bill, said Wednesday that SB 387 would prevent teens  from getting ghost gun kits and creating firearms at home while also providing protection for hobbyists who fear losing their guns.

“I know that there are some groups that will still have heartburn over this and not like it but quite frankly … there was a problem, we agreed to address it and, quite frankly, rather than fly off the cliff with our flags flying, we tried to come up with a common-sense solution to deal with ghost guns but also deal with the people who already have (unserialized hobby guns),” said Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll.

Bailey, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, also praised the Senate bill. He told fellow senators that “we can make a really good product when we all work together.”

The good will in the Senate stood in sharp contrast to the rancor in the House over HB 425.

“This ghost gun bill is very scary to me,” House Minority Whip Haven Shoemaker, R-Carroll, told his fellow delegates.

“Once again, what we’re doing here in the Maryland General Assembly is going to be criminalizing an inanimate object instead of behavior,” he added. “Instead of going after the root cause of gun violence, criminals, we are going to punish thousands of law-abiding folks….Wouldn’t it make more sense to punish criminals?”

SB 387 and HB 425 were formally and respectively introduced by  Sen. Susan C. Lee and Del. Lesley J. Lopez, both Montgomery County Democrats.