RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- President Joe Biden is trying to restrict so-called ghost guns. It’s one of several executive actions he announced on Thursday in response to recent mass shootings.
It comes after the Democratic majority in Virginia’s General Assembly failed to pass a ban proposed earlier this year.
Meanwhile, some fear these unregulated firearms are proliferating at an alarming rate, particularly as gun control laws tighten in the Commonwealth.
The true scope of the issue is difficult to measure though. Virginia State Police don’t keep data on ghost guns because there is no mandate to do so, according to VSP Spokesperson Corinne Geller.
The use of the phrase “ghost gun” itself is contested but it generally refers to various forms of homemade firearms without serial numbers.
Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church), who sponsored the bill to limit ghost guns in the 2021 session, said they’re often created through 3D printers or with plastic kits sold at gun shows that can be transformed into fully functional firearms in a few steps.
“I went and bought an unfinished receiver myself to prove that it was that easy,” Simon said. “After about 45 minute of work you have a glock-style pistol.”
The problem, according to Simon, is that the finished product has no serial number, which means law enforcement can’t trace it back to the manufacturer as part of a criminal investigation. Plus, he said you don’t need a background check to buy one.
“It is a huge loophole in gun safety legislation,” Simon said. “It makes it easier for people who shouldn’t have guns to get them.”
Simon said his original vision for the bill was a sweeping ban on ghost guns.
However, following criticism in committee hearings, Simon said it was scaled back to allow possession while prohibiting new sales, purchases, transfers and assemblies after the proposed effective date. Furthermore, he said guns built before 1968 were excluded from the serial number requirement, since older firearms usually don’t have them.
The bill won approval in the House but faced more skepticism in the Senate. The upper chamber decided to pass the bill with a re-enactment clause, meaning it would need another majority vote next year to become law. The procedural maneuver allowed the legislation to go to a conference committee in hopes of working out a deal in the final days of the 2021 session.
Before the vote, Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) raised concerns that law-abiding citizens would still be criminalized under the amended bill.
“I feel like this bill is overly broad and I feel like it needs a lot more work and unfortunately we’re at the end of the session so I don’t know when that work is going to happen,” said Petersen.
Democratic Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax Station) slammed the Senate’s refusal to pass the bill this year.
“It’s absolutely ludicrous and speaks to the hold that the gun lobby still has over certain members of the General Assembly at a time where we continue to see gun deaths at a level that is unconscionable,” Helmer said. “Voting against prohibiting ghost guns is voting to give criminals access to firearms.”
Phil Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, called the push to ban ghost guns “much ado about nothing.” He said the proposed restrictions would’ve been unenforceable and ineffective at preventing gun violence.
Van Cleave said VCDL opposes any efforts to restrict homemade guns and hobbyists.
“Crimes are not stopped because a gun has a serial number on it. Criminals don’t leave guns that they bought lying around the scene of the crime to be traced to them. The guns criminals used are stolen or bought on the black market,” Van Cleave said.
Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax), one of the bill conferees, expects the General Assembly to take up the legislation again next year, even if President Joe Biden restricts ghost guns before then.
“I think we ought to adopt whatever the federal government adopts as state law so that, if anything ever changes at the presidential level and the regulations go away, we will at least have it locked down at the state level, unless the General Assembly tries to change it,” Surovell said.
Another part of Biden’s package of gun control reforms directs the U.S. Department of Justice to create a model red flag policy for states to adopt.
Virginia’s Democratic-majority already passed its own red flag law in the 2020 session, creating a process to confiscate firearms from a person deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.
According to VSP data, there have been 84 emergency orders through the state’s red flag law between the July 1, 2020 effective date and March 31, 2021, with 45 final orders recorded in that same time period.