What’s the Future of the Nevada Ghost Gun Law?

In December 2020, a Nevada state court judge invalidated key portions of the new Nevada ghost gun law. The statute, which had an effective date of January 1, 2022, addresses production and possession of unregistered firearms. While the court ruling temporarily suspends enforcement of the law, the ultimate fate of the law is yet to be decided. The law engenders sharply divided public opinion, with gun owners, gun rights advocates, and manufacturers on one side, and law enforcement and gun control advocacy groups on the opposite side.

What Is a Ghost Gun?

The term ghost gun refers to unregistered firearms without serial numbers, which makes them untraceable and available for anyone to purchase without a background check. Ghost guns typically are handmade from kits or parts often purchased online. They may also be made from plastic with a 3D printer, which makes them undetectable by traditional security scanning systems.

Ghost guns circumvent federal and state laws regulating gun possession and manufacture, because they are made from parts or components that can easily be purchased without a background check. For a long time, these privately made firearms (the term used by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives) were primarily within the sphere of hobbyists. In recent years, ghost guns have become common in criminal activity, including organized crime.

The ability to purchase and possess an unregistered gun without a background check means that persons otherwise prohibited from owning or possessing firearms can obtain a gun without scrutiny. In addition, the untraceable nature of privately made firearms poses substantial challenges to law enforcement in crime-solving investigations.

Provisions of the Nevada Ghost Gun Law

The 2020 Nevada ghost gun law, AB 286, addresses the issues associated with ghost guns by prohibiting various actions relating to sale, manufacture, assembly, possession, purchase, transport, or receipt of an unfinished frame or receiver for a firearm, unless the part is required to be imprinted and has been imprinted with a serial number, except by a person who is a firearms importer or manufacturer. Similar prohibitions relate to firearms without serial numbers. A first offense violation of the law constitutes a gross misdemeanor. Second and subsequent offenses are category D felonies.

While a federal court judge declined to block the new law in July 2021, a state court judge in the 3rd Judicial District (Lyon County) struck down the law as unconstitutionally vague on December 10, 2021. In the court’s written opinion, the judge held that two separate provisions of the law are unconstitutionally vague and lack objective enforcement standards. As a result, the court declared the statute unenforceable.

In the written opinion, the court took issue with Section 3 and Section 3.5 of the law, the two sections containing prohibitions on actions involving an unfinished frame or receiver for a firearm. The judge examined the law’s definition of “unfinished frame or receiver” in great detail, noting that the two sections create new crimes that do not exist under federal or common law, so that the only notice of what conduct the law criminalizes is in the statute itself. Ultimately, the judge found the definition to be unconstitutionally vague under the Due Process Clause of the Nevada Constitution.The plaintiff in the action, Polymer80, is a manufacturer and distributor of gun-related products, components, and after-market accessories and is based in Lyon County. The legislative history of AB 286 indicated that the bill at least partially targeted some of Polymer80’s products. The legislative record also contains a statement that Polymer80 is one of the country’s largest manufacturers of ghost guns.

As an additional reason for the two sections of AB 286 being unconstitutionally vague under the Due Process Clause, the judge determined that the law is “so standardless that it authorizes or encourages seriously discriminatory enforcement,” citing previously established Nevada legal principles. Based on the court’s conclusions, the final order permanently enjoined the State of Nevada and its officials from enforcing Sections 3 and 3.5 of the law.

Future of Ghost Guns in Nevada

Assuming there will be further proceedings in the Polymer80 case (and in light of the possibility that there may be other challenges to the law), the future of the Nevada ghost gun law remains uncertain. For now, the law is unenforceable.

While there has been some effort in Congress to enact a federal law that closes the loophole that enables ghost guns to avoid registration and background checks, those efforts appear to have stalled. What hasn’t stalled is the strong feelings and opinions on both sides of the issue, which means that ghost guns and laws relating to them likely will continue to be a high-profile public and legislative concern.

Talk With a Las Vegas Criminal Defense Attorney

Las Vegas criminal defense attorney Joseph Gersten represents clients on all federal and state gun charges in Clark County and in other Nevada jurisdictions. He also knows and understands firearms. He is an approved Concealed Firearm Instructor for Nevada and Utah and is certified by the National Rifle Association (NRA) in more than nine (9) disciplines. Contact The Gersten Law Firm to schedule a free consultation about firearm offenses or another criminal matter.