York City Council takes aim at ghost guns

Gun Rights

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York City Council voted Tuesday to outlaw so-called ghost guns through a practical measure that’s also more a symbolic call to action.

The council’s five members unanimously signed off on an ordinance to prohibit the use of 3D printers to fabricate unlicensed and untraceable guns or parts, such as frames and receivers, that could be assembled into guns.

Such firearms and parts also can’t be sold in the city under the ordinance.

“We must do what we can to keep these types of dangerous weapons out of the hands of the wrong individuals,” Edquina Washington, council president, said during a news conference before the vote.

Washington introduced the measure two weeks ago. Tuesday’s vote marked the final passage, and now the measure goes to Mayor Michael Helfrich for his signature.

The ordinance targets ghost guns, a term generally for firearms that are either homemade or assembled from kits, and which usually don’t have serial numbers, making them difficult to trace.

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The technical term for such weapons, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, is “privately made firearms” since they’re not all illegal.

The ATF’s website shows that federally licensed dealers can legally fabricate and sell such guns and parts as long as they’re registered with serial numbers. People can also make their own guns without serial numbers as long as they’re not selling them.

The new City Council ordinance looks to draw that distinction clear.

“It’s really to ensure that people that are accessing these incomplete, unfinished firearm-build kits are undergoing a background check of some sort,” said Brandon Flood with CeaseFire PA.

Flood spoke during the news conference and shortly before the vote.

“This isn’t meant to infringe on anyone who can lawfully purchase a firearm and privately make their own firearm,” he said.

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Violators in the city could face civil penalties of at least $300 and up to more than $1,000, according to the measure’s language.

Flood called the measure a stopgap and proactive as he and Washington pointed out the vote was a show of action that urged Pennsylvania lawmakers and Congress, as well as the state and U.S. supreme courts to take action on ghost guns.

They noted the Pennsylvania House passed a bill in March to crack down on ghost gun sales and to close loopholes in the state’s Uniform Firearms Act.

An ATF rule on ghost guns that was issued in 2022 has been challenged and struck down in federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in April to hear the White House’s appeal in the case.

York’s ordinance is based on one Philadelphia passed in 2021. That ordinance was also the subject of a lawsuit that worked its way through state courts up to the state Supreme Court, Flood noted.

York City Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow supported the vote during the news conference.

“Your vote today in this room is yet another opportunity for you to get involved, to aid in that fight and to just plain do the right thing,” he said. “In a fight this important, every bit that we do helps.”

The ordinance creates a new tool, a local layer under state and federal laws, that could help police take some action when they come across ghost gun parts while federal definitions of their legality are still under debate, according to Muldrow.

He noted the ordinance’s proposed civil fines could be added to any state or federal charges if they’re brought in a ghost gun investigation. The fines could also help build probable cause to get a warrant for further investigation.

“It still gives us something to further that investigation with, something to stick the landing on, something to be able to build inside and tell somebody that we’re not going to tolerate that,” Muldrow said.

Off the top of his head, he estimated the city confiscated 22 ghost guns in 2022 and 19 more in 2023. Several of the guns and kits in 2022 were seized as part of a homicide investigation in which about 100 bullets were fired while a man was killed along West Philadelphia Street.

So far, police haven’t taken any ghost guns this year, Muldrow said.

He attributed that in part to city efforts to reduce gun violence.

Another part of the drop, he said, was an ATF task force intercepted a shipment of 40 ghost guns that came in from Puerto Rico en route to Harrisburg, York, Lancaster and Lebanon about two years ago. Suspects in the pipeline were arrested, he said.

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Flood saw a potential for the city to get creative for developing a plan for enforcing the new ordinance. He listed conducting more awareness and educational campaigns for gun dealers and buyers as one example.

Messages seeking comment from Keystone Rifle and Pistol Association Inc., which is listed as a state National Rifle Association affiliate, were not returned Tuesday before the council meeting.

Following the council’s passage of the new ordinance, Mayor Helfrich has 10 days to sign and approve the document.

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— Reach Aimee Ambrose at aambrose@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.

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