State lawmaker sets sights on untraceable ‘ghost guns’

Denver City Council passes local firearm ordinance

Unlike after previous mass shootings, Democratic state lawmakers largely refrained from calling for legislative action in the immediate wake of a Dec. 27 shooting spree, which officers have described as a series of five targeted killings. Some expressed their condolences to the five victims’ families and shared resources for the community.

But one Denver Democrat — whose district includes two of the sites where people were murdered — told Newsline following the killing spree that he plans to propose a new gun-safety law.

“We must do better to save innocent lives from gun violence,” Sen. Chris Hansen wrote in a Dec. 28 Twitter post.

Without knowing how shooting suspect Lyndon McLeod acquired his weapons, it’s difficult to say whether any state or local actions could have saved the victims’ lives. However, when asked to elaborate on his tweet, Hansen said he’d been talking with colleagues about a variety of potential new firearm policies.

At the top of his priority list: addressing a phenomenon known as “ghost guns,” which Denver City Council voted Monday to effectively ban.

Background check loopholes
After a Lakewood Police Department officer killed McLeod, two weapons were recovered from the suspect, Commander Matt Clark of the Denver Police Department’s Major Crimes Division said at a Dec. 28 news conference. Clark declined to provide additional details before the investigation is complete.

Police did, however, acknowledge that McLeod had been investigated twice previously by law enforcement, and that neither investigation resulted in charges being filed against him. It’s still unclear whether McLeod’s weapons were legally acquired, though Denver police said their previous interactions with the gunman didn’t support using Colorado’s red-flag law to remove his firearms from him, according to Colorado Public Radio reporter Andrew Kenney.

“Obviously the investigation continues and we’re all trying to make sense out of what seems to be a senseless loss of life,” Hansen said. “I think it’s just incumbent on all of us to try to make the community as safe as we possibly can, and that’s what I’m going to try to focus on next session.”

Hansen is working with gun-safety organization Colorado Ceasefire on a policy to curb a type of firearm that has long been under scrutiny by gun-control advocates.

“Ghost guns” are privately assembled firearms that lack serial numbers, making them untraceable. Some are sold as kits containing firearm parts that someone can put together at home, meaning they don’t require a background check. Others are 3D-printed and assembled at home.

Taylor Rhodes, the executive director of gun-rights organization Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, described policies cracking down on ghost guns as a way for the government to exert more control over citizens.

“In my opinion, rights should never be limited to or by government-approved manufacturers or rogue government,” Rhodes said.

Federal and local action
President Joe Biden’s administration has zeroed in on ghost guns as an opportunity to close a background-check loophole using executive-branch authority. The Department of Justice published a proposed rule last May that would require retailers to run background checks on people wishing to purchase kits that contain firearm parts for home assembly.

The proposed rule would also require federally licensed firearms dealers to add a serial number to the firearm “frame or receiver” in easy-to-build firearm kits and on 3D-printed guns, as well as any other types of guns they stock that currently lack serial numbers. The frame or receiver provides a structure to hold the firearm components involved in the firing sequence.

The Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Bureau hasn’t yet published a final rule on ghost guns. The Bureau is still reviewing public comments, according to a December press release from the White House. It received more than 290,000 comments on the proposed rule.

Hansen expressed skepticism about the possibility of federal action anytime soon.

“Ideally we’d have a federal approach,” he said, “but that obviously is not going to happen, so we (might as well) make some progress on the state level.”

Eileen McCarron, president of Colorado Ceasefire, confirmed her organization was working with Hansen on possible legislation. She called ghost guns a way to circumvent the background check process.

“We know they’re getting into the hands of youth. They’re getting into the hands of criminals,” McCarron said. “The ghost guns are a way to sidestep the whole system (by which) people who are concerned about gun violence are trying to endeavor to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them, which includes people with serious felonies, people with mental health conditions, people who are domestic violence abusers and (the) underage.”

Denver City Council’s pending legislation would prohibit the possession, carry, use, manufacture and sale of non-serialized guns in Denver. The bill was introduced by the Denver city attorney’s office.

Someone convicted of violating Denver’s proposed law would be subject to a fine of up to $500 on the first offense, and $750 on a second offense occurring within five years of the first.

Close to 40 ghost guns have been recovered from crime scenes throughout the city since November 2019, according to a December statement from City Attorney Kristin Bronson. Nationwide, law enforcement agencies reported recovering more than 23,000 firearms without serial numbers at potential crime scenes from 2016 to 2020, according to the Department of Justice.

In an email, McCarron brought up a recent incident involving a former Greenwood Village police officer who allegedly shot and killed a 17-year-old boy in Aurora, after the two were said to have exchanged gunfire.

“It is illegal in Colorado for a 17-year-old to possess a handgun, so the big question on
my mind, was where did he get that gun, as he can’t buy one in a store,” McCarron wrote. “We later learned that the gun he held was a ghost gun. No serial number, no background check.”

In reference to Denver’s forthcoming policy on ghost guns, Hansen said he didn’t see a citywide ban being particularly effective.

“It basically is a way to skirt the gun safety background checks that we have in place for other gun purchases,” he said of ghost guns. “So I don’t think we’re in a situation where we’d be able to do a (statewide) ban, but I do think it would make sense to close remaining loopholes in the background check program.”

Rhodes also doubted the efficacy of the Denver ordinance at reducing gun violence, since bad actors could still buy guns illegally to avoid a background check.

“The bill opens a door for the government to essentially micromanage every conceivable part of a firearm,” he said, calling it a “slap in the face to law-abiding gun owners who have built their own firearms.”

“Really,” Rhodes added, “gunsmithing and firearm building is and always has been a staple in America. That’s why we have a ton of gun manufacturers.”

Closing the ‘Charleston loophole’
House Bill 21-1298, which was passed last year after 10 people were killed in a Boulder mass shooting, aimed to close a different background-check loophole. Polis signed the bill into law last June.

Sponsored by four Democrats — Reps. Judy Amabile of Boulder and Steven Woodrow of Denver, plus Sens. Julie Gonzales of Denver and Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood — the law prevents gun sales in Colorado without a completed background check. It was opposed by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, which argued that it infringed on Coloradans’ Second Amendment rights.

Under federal law, gun retailers must allow three days for the FBI to process someone’s background check before they can buy a gun. But if the check isn’t completed by then, the retailer was allowed to let the customer purchase the firearm anyway. Gun-control advocates call this the “Charleston loophole,” because they say it’s how the perpetrator of a 2015 mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, was able to obtain the gun he used to kill nine people.

HB-1298 aimed to close the Charleston loophole by requiring a firearms dealer to obtain approval from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation before allowing someone to purchase a gun, and preventing the bureau from approving any gun sales without a completed background check.

The bill passed the Senate on a vote of 21-14, with no Republican votes. In the House of Representatives, it passed with all Democrats present in favor, and all Republicans opposed — except for House Minority Leader Hugh McKean of Loveland, who said he accidentally voted yes and was subsequently barred by Democrats from changing his vote.

“We’ve stopped thousands of illegal purchases every year with background checks,” Hansen said, “and so I think it’s important that we don’t have any loopholes in that system.”

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