Ghost gun kits and parts are in fact firearms, a court said in a landmark judgment, barring one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of the homemade and untraceable weapons from selling its do-it-yourself products to residents in Washington, D.C.
Polymer80, a Nevada-based ghost gun manufacturer and distributor, has to pay more than $4 million in penalties for making false claims about the legality of its products, a judge on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia ruled Wednesday.
Gun-safety advocates said the ruling was crucial to stem the flow of ghost guns, which are increasingly favored among criminals nationwide because the kits are bought without a background check and can be put together in under two hours.
It is significant even outside the U.S. capital, they said, amid a handful of other lawsuits against ghost gun companies and ahead of new federal regulations that go into effect soon.
“It’s a resounding victory for the people of the district, for gun safety and, frankly, for common sense," said David Pucino, the deputy chief counsel at the Giffords Law Center, a gun-safety group.
Pucino, who specializes in ghost guns, said Polymer80 is the "worst actor in this space," slamming the company's "utterly egregious" practices.
Polymer80 did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
The company had argued its products are not firearms. But D.C. Superior Court Judge Ebony Scott said Polymer80's unfinished receivers, frames and "Buy, Build, Shoot" kits are, in fact, defined as such.
As a result, Scott ordered the company to permanently stop selling them to district residents and barred Polymer80 from saying the products are legal there.
Scott cited “Polymer80’s alarming belief” that the sale of its firearms is legal in the district as part of the reason the court granted the plaintiff’s request for a permanent injunction.
Polymer80 also has to "prominently notify" its website visitors that those products are illegal to sell and own in the district and relay that message to all of its past, present and future dealers and distributors.
More significantly, Pucino said, the judgment validates an upcoming Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) rule that will subject ghost guns to the same regulations as traditional firearms.
Beginning Aug. 24, those who sell ghost guns will have to be licensed. Background checks have to be conducted before sales, and manufacturers must ensure the parts have serial numbers.
“The court is already recognizing what the ATF is recognizing,” Pucino said.
Across the country, officials say ghost guns have been increasingly showing up at crime scenes. And when they do, they’re harder to trace to an individual buyer because they’re not currently marked with serial numbers.
The ATF said it received more than 45,000 reports of suspected ghost guns recovered by law enforcement from January 2016 to December 2021. Nearly 700 of them were recovered in homicide or attempted homicide investigations, officials said.
In 2021 alone, the White House said about 20,000 suspected ghost guns were reported to the federal government as having been recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations. That’s 10 times as many as in 2016, the administration said.
In Washington, the Metropolitan Police Department recovered 439 ghost guns in 2021, a 146-fold increase from the three it recovered in 2017, officials said.
There's also been an uptick in ghost guns showing up in New York City, where police say they have seized 263 of them in connection with arrests in 2021, compared to 150 in 2020, and 48 in 2019.
So far this year, about 9% of all guns recovered by police have been ghost guns, while more are likely flooding the streets, according to a lawsuit the city filed in June against ghost gun sellers.
Calling ghost guns a "devastating menace," Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said Polymer80 accounts for 91% of all seized ghost guns in the city.
The D.C. court's decision, issued Wednesday, favors the arguments the petitioners have made in those suits, Pucino said.
“All of those cases are strong, but having authority from a court validating the theories in those cases is extremely encouraging," he said.
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine sued Polymer80 in 2020, alleging that the company had violated consumer protection law by falsely claiming that its weapons are legal in the district and by selling illegal guns to D.C. consumers.
The $4 million fine puts pressure on Polymer80 and other companies and sends a message that their businesses may no longer be financially viable, Pucino and Racine said.
“This judgment," Racine said, "is a major victory for D.C. residents and for public safety, and it will help slow the flow of deadly untraceable ghost guns into our community."