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Days after the mass shooting, Philadelphia moves to sue sellers of 'ghost guns'


Once again this year, the Fourth of July holiday was marked by a series of mass shootings around the country. A rampage in Philadelphia on Monday night killed five people. The alleged shooter was arrested on the scene in Philadelphia. Police were troubled by the nature of his two guns. Here's Deputy Commissioner of Investigations Frank Vanore.


FRANK VANORE: We've confirmed through our lab both of those weapons were privately made firearms. They don't have any markings. They're not traceable. So if he would have dropped that weapon and got away, we had no way to trace that weapon back to him.

SIMON: In other words, they were what's sometimes called ghost guns - a phenomenon that's grown so fast Philadelphia is now suing. Joining us now to explain the lawsuit and the legal status of these do-it-yourself guns is NPR's Martin Kaste. Martin, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: First, I want to try and understand the lawsuits because if these are ghost guns, who does the city sue?

KASTE: Well, there are two kinds of ghost guns. There are those that are made truly at home, truly homemade with, say, a 3D printer or something like that. That's not what Philadelphia is focusing on, though. They're suing over the much bigger category, which is these companies that sell you the metal machined parts for a gun, but technically not quite a gun - under federal rules at least. And basically, what this is, is a kit. This week, Philadelphia sued two companies that sell the kits - JSD Supply and Polymer80. The city accuses those two companies of selling these almost-guns to Philadelphians in violation of state law. And they also say this kind of sale has fueled violence and cost the city a lot of money.

SIMON: Any idea how many of these guns might be out there?

KASTE: Well, it's hard to know the number in circulation by the very nature of these guns. The manufacturers consider them unregulated parts. So there's no serial numbers. Buyers don't have to do background checks. So the things we usually use to count guns just don't happen. But the police do count them when they come to them from crime scenes, and that count is increasing. The ATF says the number of privately made firearms used in crimes jumped to about 20,000 two years ago. And you see that kind of jump in Philly, too, where it went from almost nothing to nearly 10% of all the guns from crimes last year, which are now privately made firearms.

SIMON: The city announced this lawsuit on Wednesday. Was that because of the two ghost guns they recovered at Monday's shooting?

KASTE: No, the city was already preparing this suit before that happened with the help of the Giffords Law Center, the gun control group. And Philadelphia is just really the latest in a series of Democratic-run jurisdictions that have tried this. We've seen similar lawsuits in New York, New Jersey, California. Some of those lawsuits are pending. In other cases, they have gotten the manufacturers to agree to stop selling the kits in those places. They've even paid out some money.

SIMON: Martin, in addition to these lawsuits from cities and states, is there something going on at the federal level?

KASTE: So the Biden administration has made it a priority to clamp down on these gun kits. They did that by having the ATF broaden some of the technical definitions of which parts qualify as a firearm for purposes of having to have a serial number and requiring a background check for a purchase, that kind of thing. But as you might imagine, that was instantly challenged in court by gun rights groups. I talked to Adam Kraut. He's the executive director of the Second Amendment Foundation. They're involved in a lawsuit in federal court in Texas.

ADAM KRAUT: The right to self-manufacture arms is something that, you know, there is no historical basis either in law or tradition to restrict people from doing.

KASTE: And he says the administration overstepped its bounds by rewriting the definition of what a gun is. He says that should be left to Congress. A federal court in Texas has agreed so far. It just vacated those new definitions. And for now, people who track this kind of thing say these gun kits are still being widely sold across the country.

SIMON: NPR's Martin Kaste, thanks so much.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.