AG says news laws needed to trace ‘ghost guns’

Campbell says she's discussing issue with legislative leaders


THE STATE’S TOP prosecutor wants legislators to do more to curb the rising presence of “ghost guns,” and her office warns that it can be difficult under existing law to nail down cases against people assembling their own untraceable firearms at home.

Ghost guns, which refer to weapons that do not have required serial numbers or identifying marks, have become increasingly popular in Massachusetts in the past three or four years, according to police. And while the Bay State has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation — and the lowest rate of gun violence — officials are ramping up their calls for new reforms.

Seated at a conference room table filled end-to-end with unregistered firearms and parts seized by police, Attorney General Andrea Campbell told reporters Tuesday her office has been in “close communication” with top lawmakers to urge a focus on ghost guns in any legislative action.

“We need to get these guns off the street and, frankly, out of communities that are seeing and have seen, probably for generations, an uptick in violence or gun violence in their community,” Campbell said.

State Police officials say they have observed a sharp increase in assembly of untraceable firearms since about 2019, attributing the spike to the growing popularity and availability of “80 percent frame” kits that can be legally purchased and then tweaked into a functioning gun easily.

In November 2020, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security added “privately made firearm” and “ghost gun” as options in its reporting tool that monitors guns used in crimes each year. The office reported 181 privately made firearms seized in 2021 and 316 privately made firearms in 2022.

Many of those seizures involve people who were not licensed to carry firearms of any kind and were found in possession of untraceable weapons they assembled, some of which had been modified to allow for automatic fire or large-capacity magazines, police say.

It’s legal in Massachusetts to privately make a firearm so long as the weapon is registered within seven days of completion.

“You can buy parts online or use a 3D printer to make a deadly weapon and completely circumvent our existing gun laws in Massachusetts,” Campbell said. “So it’s not only troubling that ghost guns can be assembled, bought and sold so easily, but they are of course untraceable and then of course it makes it harder for law enforcement to investigate the crimes that occur using these types of weapons.”

Campbell’s office said a gun must be fully functioning — that is, able to fire a bullet — for someone to be prosecuted for unlawful possession. That means there are times when prosecutors are considering a case against someone who they believe is illegally manufacturing firearms, but ultimately cannot charge the person because they did not at that point possess each of the required parts or a fully functioning weapon.

The briefing Tuesday came as Beacon Hill power players eye action to overhaul gun laws, assuming they can first get past procedural disagreements.

Judiciary Committee Co-chair Rep. Michael Day, a top deputy to Speaker Ron Mariano who played a key role in the response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen decision last year, on June 26 filed an omnibus bill that ranges from explicitly prohibiting carrying firearms in many public places to creating new offenses for firing a weapon at or near a dwelling.

Campbell’s office on Tuesday revealed that it sent a letter last month — before Day filed his bill — to the Stoneham Democrat and fellow Judiciary Committee co-chair Sen. Jamie Eldridge outlining more than a dozen suggestions for legislative action on guns.

Most of those ideas, the office said, made it into Day’s bill in one form or another. Campbell suggested criminalizing unlawful possession of the core parts used to build a firearm like receivers, and Day’s bill would require receivers and barrels to be registered and serialized.

The attorney general’s office stopped short of outright endorsing the legislation as Day drafted it and said the full package is still under review.

“There’s a lot in there, but we were really proud of some things that were included with respect to ghost guns,” Campbell said of Day’s bill. “Some of that includes imposing criminal penalties on the manufacturing, selling and possession of ghost guns, ensuring consistent and uniform reporting of data on guns used to commit crimes, requiring all guns to have serial numbers, which is not currently the case, and ensuring that everyone in possession of a gun actually has a license to carry one.”

Day’s sweeping legislation has drawn intense pushback from gun rights advocates and firearm owners.

The National Association for Gun Rights, which has challenged states’ gun laws in court including the Massachusetts ban on assault weapons, on Tuesday said Day’s bill would “ostensibly ban more guns than any current law in the United States.”

“This is probably the biggest and worst package of gun control regulation I have ever seen, and that is saying a lot,” NAGR President Dudley Brown said in a statement. “Massachusetts just secured top position as the most hostile state in the union to gun owners.”

Campbell’s office also said top Senate Democrats have signaled an interest in gun reform legislation this session, with other bills like one filed by Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem (S 1496) standing as possible options.

Despite the optimistic tone the AG’s office struck, Day’s bill remains in limbo as House and Senate Democrats spar over the basic procedural question of which legislative committee should be first to formally review it.

Gov. Maura Healey, who preceded Campbell as attorney general, on Tuesday did not take a definitive stance on Day’s legislation.

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Chris Lisinski

Reporter, State House News Service
“I have to take a look at what is currently being debated. I haven’t had a chance to do that yet. And I’ll certainly review anything that gets to my desk,” Healey told reporters at an unrelated morning event in Hyde Park. “As a general matter, though, I support strong gun laws as a matter of public safety. I did as attorney general and will continue to support that as governor.”

Sam Drysdale contributed reporting.