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Pa. attorney general targets illegal possession of kit guns

  • Ed Mahon
Guns, including ones made through DIY kits, are displayed on a table in the Governor's Reception Room of the state Capitol on Dec. 16, 2019.

 Ed Mahon / PA Post

Guns, including ones made through DIY kits, are displayed on a table in the Governor's Reception Room of the state Capitol on Dec. 16, 2019.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is trying to crack down on the illegal possession of so-called ghost guns — a term used to refer to firearms made with DIY kits.

Under a legal opinion Shapiro issued Monday, 80 percent receivers — which Shapiro called the “skeleton of the gun” — will be treated as guns. 

“These are the paint-by-numbers of firearms,” Shapiro said.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives defines “80 percent receiver” as “an item that some may believe has not yet reached a stage of manufacture that meets the definition of firearm frame or receiver found in the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA).” 

Under the attorney general’s opinion, someone banned from possessing a gun, such as people with felony convictions, could face criminal charges for possessing one of the 80 percent receivers.

Shapiro’s legal opinion will not ban guns made from kits, he said. The opinion only targets people banned from possessing guns. 

Shapiro said more than 100 completed “ghost guns” have been recovered in Philadelphia this year.

“Every single one of these deadly ghost guns were seized from a prohibited purchaser,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro’s office will now work with Pennsylvania State Police on an implementation strategy. Shapiro didn’t provide a timeline for when that will be completed.

It’s not clear yet how the opinion will affect people who sell 80 percent receivers. Shapiro declined to say whether the opinion will require sellers to complete a background check on customers. He said that issue is going to be part of the review by the state police.

In November, a California teenager used a gun made from a kit to kill two students and injure three others at Saugus High School, according to USA Today.

David Pucino, staff attorney with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said New Jersey, Washington, Connecticut and California have passed laws aimed at “ghost guns.” But he’s not aware of any other state changing the definition of firearm to include unfinished frames or receivers.

“This interpretation is quite sound: unfinished frame and receiver products are explicitly designed to be used in firearms, and the sellers have worked quite hard to make it so that their products may be readily converted into fully functioning firearms,” Pucino said in an email.

The group Everytown for Gun Safety praised Shapiro for his move, saying he’s the first attorney general to declare that the building blocks for a gun are a regulated firearm under U.S. law. The group said attorneys general in several other states, including Florida, Tennessee and New Mexico, have the legal power to make a similar move.

Joshua Prince, an attorney who specializes in gun rights cases, said Shapiro’s actions are illegal. Prince said, under Shapiro’s opinion, “a block of metal or plastic can now constitute a firearm.”

“What appears lost on AG Shapiro is the fact that only the General Assembly can write the law and that the General Assembly cannot delegate its authority, in the absence of providing a coherent framework that can be equally and consistently applied,” Prince said in a blog post.

Ed Mahon / PA Post

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a news conference on Dec. 16, 2019.

Ed Mahon / PA Post

Guns are displayed in Harrisburg on Dec. 16, 2019, in the Governor’s Reception Room in Harrisburg.


National Rifle Association spokesman Lars Dalseide said Shapiro is “attempting to contort the law… .”

“The Attorney General is claiming that something explicitly designed not to fire a projectile can,  in fact, fire a projectile,” he said in an email.

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