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State judge strikes down key parts of Nevada’s ‘ghost gun’ ban

Sean Golonka
Sean Golonka
CourtsGovernment
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Various handguns as seen on display inside Discount Firearms & Ammo in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2018.

Provisions of a state law passed earlier this year prohibiting the possession and sale of unregistered ‘ghost guns’ were struck down by a state district court judge last week. 

The ruling — in favor of Dayton-based firearms manufacturer and seller Polymer80 — declared that key portions of the law, which criminalize both owners and sellers of unfinished firearm frames or receivers, are unconstitutionally vague because they fail to establish clear standards for enforcement of the law.

“Unlike the federal regulatory process to determine whether a frame or lower receiver is considered a firearm under the Gun Control Act, Nevada has established no authority at all to determine when an ‘unfinished frame or receiver’ actually comes into existence,” Lyon County District Court Judge John Schlegelmilch wrote in his ruling. “The most any court can glean from the definition is that it is something less than a firearm and more than a block of raw material.”

The ban established by AB286 — which passed on party-line votes in both houses with Democrats in support — was considered one of the most prominent gun violence prevention measures approved by the Legislature this year. The bill was sponsored by Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas), who during a hearing of the measure brought up her own experience as a survivor of the 1 October mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 59 dead and hundreds injured. 

Starting in January, the law would have prohibited a person from possessing, purchasing, transporting or receiving any “unfinished frame or receiver” of a firearm, or assembling any firearm not imprinted with a serial number. People found guilty of doing so would have been subject to a criminal misdemeanor penalty, with repeat violations punishable by a felony charge. 

So-called “ghost guns” are fully functional firearms that can be made at home using parts and kits and do not have a serial number or any other identifying information, making them untraceable as compared to guns in normal firearm sales, which typically must be conducted by a federally-licensed firearms dealer who undertakes background checks on the purchaser. 

In the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the measure, the district court found that Polymer80 would suffer “significant economic loss,” as the bill targets their products — Polymer80 manufactures a variety of gun-related products and after-market accessories, including firearm assembly kits. The court’s ruling also noted that Jauregui pointed to Polymer80 as “one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of ghost guns” during a hearing earlier this year.

“This Court determines that Polymer80 will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of declaratory and/or injunctive relief,” Schlegelmilch wrote.

After Schlegelmilch provided an oral ruling in favor of Polymer80 at a hearing last month, the company’s CEO Loran Kelley heralded the decision as a significant victory for firearm rights.

“AB286 is vague and unlawful legislation that targets our company specifically for conducting a lawful business,” Kelley said in a statement. “We will continue to challenge lawless attempts to curtail our rights and the rights of our customers.”

The court’s ruling additionally found that the state’s definition of an “unfinished frame or receiver” does not provide an ordinary person with proper notice of just what AB286 criminalizes.

The attorney general’s office — which represented the state officials named as defendants in the case, including Gov. Steve Sisolak and state Attorney General Aaron Ford — declined to provide comment on the ruling.

Schlegelmilch previously issued a preliminary injunction in favor of Polymer80 in July, temporarily barring enforcement of the portion of the bill prohibiting the sale of “ghost gun” firearm assembly kits. Attorneys for the state appealed the decision to the Nevada Supreme Court in a case that is still pending.

The temporary order came only days before federal District Court Judge Miranda Du denied a similar request for an injunction against the new law brought forward by the Firearms Policy Coalition. 

In 2019, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms estimated that law enforcement nationally collected roughly 10,000 home-assembled, nonserialized firearms. President Joe Biden announced efforts earlier this year to toughen regulations on ‘ghost guns,’ but those regulations will likely not take effect until next year and are likely to be challenged in court.

However, such collections have been rare in Southern Nevada, according to Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo. During a question-and-answer session with members of the Nevada Firearms Coalition in June, Lombardo — who is running for governor as a Republican — said Las Vegas police had only tracked six instances of homemade, non-serialized firearms over the past year and that none of the firearms were used in a crime. He added that his department would not be proactive in enforcing the provisions of AB286.

AB286 District Court rules ... by Sean Golonka

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