Fate of Nevada’s 2021 ban on ghost gun sales debated before Supreme Court
A lawsuit over the 2021 Nevada law that targeted one of the nation’s largest ghost gun kit and part manufacturers is finally nearing a legal conclusion, after oral arguments in the case were held Thursday in front of the state Supreme Court.
The 30-minute oral arguments between attorneys for the state and Polymer80, the prolific Dayton-based firearm manufacturer dubbed the nation’s largest maker of parts for ghost guns (firearms without serial numbers), marked the last hurdle before the seven members of the state’s highest court determine the future of the law sometime in the coming months.
Polymer80 is a licensed firearm manufacturer, but has a sizable business in producing and selling so-called unfinished frames, the lower part of a handgun that can then be attached to a firing mechanism and other related components to create a working handgun.
Gun control advocates say Polymer80’s products and other ghost gun devices create a loophole allowing for individuals who may be prohibited from legally purchasing a firearm to easily purchase and assemble their own stealth firearms. The company and other supporters say its products are largely purchased by hobbyists and that attempts to limit their business run afoul of the Second Amendment.
Though federal law requires completed frames and receivers to be stamped with serial numbers, Polymer80 intentionally designs “unfinished” frames, which are about 80 percent complete. According to ProPublica, the company sent samples of the unfinished frames to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in 2015, and the agency agreed that the product did not require a serial number. The company also has marketed a “Buy, Build, Shoot” kit (without explicit ATF approval) that contains an unfinished frame and other parts needed to complete firearm assembly.
In 2021, Democratic lawmakers led by Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) passed legislation on party lines to ban the possession, purchase, transport or receipt of any unfinished frame or receiver of a firearm, or assembling any firearm not imprinted with a serial number — which would effectively shut down Polymer80’s ghost gun business in the state.
But in late 2021, before the bill took effect, the company won a district court decision that concluded key portions of the law related to the manufacture of ghost gun parts was unconstitutionally vague and did not establish clear enforcement guidelines. The state appealed, eventually leading to Thursday’s oral arguments.
Though Polymer80’s lawsuit argues that the state law’s definition of an unfinished frame is unconstitutionally vague, Deputy Attorney General Kiel Ireland argued that many of the technical terms used in the law were “straightforward words with well-settled meanings,” noting that Polymer80 used many of the same challenged terms in earlier correspondence with the ATF.
“A statute does not need to be a Russian nesting doll, with each definitional section having its own set of definitional subsections,” he said.
Justice Douglas Herndon questioned if the law could be applied equally given that Polymer80 products are shipped at roughly 80 percent completion, well beyond the standard established in the law (“the point at which most of the major machining operations have been completed to turn the blank, casting or machined body into a frame or lower receiver of a firearm”) — suggesting that the language was unclear enough that a person wouldn’t know if they were violating the law.
“Don't you think, though, that this kind of language that the Legislature used here would allow for a lot of implicit bias and arbitrary enforcement by people trying to figure out or applying their own definition of what ‘most’ means?” he asked.
“That is a judgment call by both the law enforcement agency and by the jury,” he said in response. “And we accept that the Legislature has to use general terms like that because of the infinite variety of human behavior.”
Attorney Brad Johnston, representing Polymer80, argued that the law’s definition of when raw material was transformed into an unfinished frame or receiver lacked a clear definition. He raised a hypothetical scenario of taking a Polymer80 kit into his shop and assembling it in front of three different law enforcement officers.
“I would say they would come to three different conclusions as to if it ever became a criminal item to possess,” he said. “And that leads to the discriminatory enforcement.”
Several of the justices questioned Johnston’s arguments. Justice Lidia Stiglich noted that assembly of Lego kits can take longer than assembly of certain Polymer80 products (the company says their products can be put together in 30 minutes to an hour), suggesting that the somewhat straightforward assembly process with a clear guide would clearly fit the description of unfinished frame or receiver in state law.
Justice Elissa Cadish questioned why Polymer80 would have trouble interpreting manufacturing standards for when raw material turns into an unfinished frame or receiver, given that the company’s name signified the federal limit (80 percent) before a collection of firearm parts needs a serial number.
“If your client was able to evaluate the 80 percent standard, as signified by its company name, can they not evaluate 50 percent?” she asked.
Johnston replied that the standards in federal and state law were different, and that federal law allows companies to receive guidance from the ATF on whether a product complies with the law, while “we’re left trying to decipher” the meaning of terms in state law.
“Are you arguing that ‘most’ is a word that your client can't understand?” Cadish said.
“I'm saying that the average Nevadan can't understand what ‘most of the major machining operations’ are,” Johnston replied.
According to court documents cited by ProPublica, Polymer80’s business has taken off — the company has shipped nearly 52,000 items to customers across the country from January 2019 through October 2020.
At the same time, the number of privately made firearms recovered by law enforcement has increased dramatically — jumping from more than 7,500 nationwide in 2019 to more than 19,000 in 2021, according to the ATF. ProPublica reported that the “vast majority” of ghost guns recovered are built from Polymer80-produced products.
Several mayors of large cities including Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles have sued Polymer80 for selling products it says are violating their local gun control laws, and the ATF is seeking to impose a new rule that requires unfinished frames and receivers include a serial number (the rule went into effect last year but is being challenged in federal court).