Gun-Rights Group Sues Pennsylvania Over New 'Ghost Guns' Rule

A so-called 80% receiver is shown in an educational image. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s legal opinion on Monday informed the State Police that the state’s Uniform Firearms Act embraces a definition of “firearm” which is expansive enough to encompass 80% receivers.

The Firearms Policy Coalition filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania State Police on Friday requesting an emergency injunction just days after the state's attorney general issued a legal opinion reclassifying certain unfinished weapons parts as firearms under state law.

"Rule by executive fiat was rejected by the Thirteen American Colonies, including Pennsylvania, when they declared independence from England, and we reject such lawlessness today," Adam Kraut, the coalition's director of legal policy, said in a press release. "The Attorney General's revisionist legal opinion adds an entire class of inanimate objects to the definition of 'firearm' under Pennsylvania law that the General Assembly never considered, nor intended."

Unfinished weapons parts, commonly referred to as 80 percent receivers, can be machined into fully functional weapons with the right equipment. Because they are merely precursors, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the federal agency tasked with enforcing gun restrictions, has long considered these parts outside the purview of federal firearms law.

This means that an individual would be able to acquire unfinished parts without undergoing a background check or, in many cases, without having to engrave the fully assembled firearm with a serial number, as traditional manufacturers have to do.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's legal opinion on Monday informed the State Police that the state's Uniform Firearms Act embraces a definition of "firearm" which is expansive enough to encompass 80 percent receivers.

Citing a prior Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling, Shapiro noted that a part would be "designed" to fire a projectile if it was "intended" or "planned" to do so, regardless of whether it was fire-ready at the time.

In his lawsuit on Friday, Kraut observed that the federal Gun Control Act has a nearly identical definition, which allows parts "designed" to fire projectiles to be considered firearms. However, he argued, the ATF has consistently interpreted this definition to exclude 80 percent receivers.

Kraut further alleged that a host of criteria advanced by the attorney general to determine whether an unfinished precursor could satisfy a separate definition of "firearm" were too vague to be enforceable.

When contacted by Newsweek Saturday, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Police declined to comment on pending litigation.

Do-it-yourself weapons lacking a serial number, often called ghost guns, have prompted concern among law enforcement for their lack of traceability and existence beyond the current regulatory framework.

Pennsylvania has expanded its required background check system beyond the federal minimum, although it is still not universal. If the State Police were to continue enforcing the law under Shapiro's interpretation, many precursors would be subject to a background check.

Because the State Police have not yet established a way to process background checks for precursor sales, they are effectively forbidden for the time being.

Kraut's suit argues that enforcement of the opinion should also be blocked for procedural reasons. He calls the legal opinion effective regulatory action, which can only be accomplished through official rule-making procedures. Kraut also says that because none of the criteria can individually be relied upon to determine a precursor's status, the opinion is too vague to be lawful.

For his part, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf hailed the opinion as a way to help the state prosecute criminal gun owners.

"If we don't recognize that 80 percent receivers are firearms under Pennsylvania law, we are creating a giant loophole that allows criminals to skirt our agreed-upon laws that keep people safe," Wolf said in a press release. "Changing this classification will not hurt legal, responsible gun owners – This change will stop criminals, terrorists and other people who can't pass a background check from acquiring a gun through the loophole."

Updated 8:39 PM ET on December 21, 2019 to include that a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Police declined to comment.