Ghost Guns

"Ghost guns" are displayed Nov. 27, 2019, at the headquarters of the San Francisco Police Department.

A Pennsylvania policy less than a month old pertaining to the background requirements needed in the sale of so-called ghost guns remains on ice following a state judge’s recent ruling.

Judge Kevin Brobson of the Commonwealth Court issued a preliminary injunction Jan. 31 to state police on selling partially manufactured gun frames after reviewing a case filed by four petitioners: Firearms Policy Coalition, Landmark Firearms, Polymer80 and U.S. Rifle.

“The crux of this case is a perceived change in the Pennsylvania State Police’s interpretation of the term ‘firearm’ within the context of the Uniform Firearms Act,” Brobson wrote in a memorandum opinion.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, meanwhile, called for an outright ban on ghost guns in his budget proposal unveiled this week, along with a host of other gun control measures.

“I know there is no law that can eliminate every act of gun violence,” Wolf said during his budget address. “But the steps I'm proposing are supported by the evidence and supported by the vast majority of Pennsylvanians. We can pass them tomorrow."

Brobson, throughout his 17-page analysis, expressed concern with the state police’s policy around the partially manufactured gun frames, which have been used to make actual rifles and pistols.

The injunction came weeks after state policy issued guidance to gun dealers on how background checks should be performed when sales of ghost guns are transacted. The devices are also referred to at times as 80-percent receivers because they are near, but not at, completion.

Brobson in his opinion said he agreed with the petitioners’ assertions the state police policy, as written, is ambiguous.

“Petitioners have taken the stance that their unfinished receivers do not meet the (Uniform Firearms Act’s) definition of firearm,” Brobson wrote. “Some level of additional effort – e.g. drilling, filing, sawing, etc. – is required for these unfinished receivers to become fully functioning receivers.”

In rendering his decision, Brobson in his opinion also said he looked at the state police’s interpretation of the term “firearm” against the backdrop of the UFA.

“In general, the UFA defines a firearm as ‘any weapon, which is designed to or may readily be converted to expel any projectile by the action of an explosive or the frame or receiver of any such weapon,’” Brobson wrote.

He added, “While, at first blush, this may appear straightforward, the UFA does not contain definitions of the terms ‘frame or receiver,’ ‘designed to’ or ‘may readily be converted to.’”

Brobson’s injunction is the latest in a series of legal maneuvers that have tested the definition of what constitutes a firearm.

In December, Attorney Gen. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, gave his own legal opinion on the ghost guns policy, giving state police the authority to develop a policy for background checks.

In his opinion, Shapiro stated in his legal guidance ghost guns could be viewed as firearms because the unassembled frames could eventually lead to the outcome of an actual firearm through such actions as expelling a projectile.

With Shapiro’s guidance in play, state police adopted their policy, which called for the gun dealers to use the state’s gun-purchase background check system for the ghost gun sales, in lieu of an alternate online system.