AMERICA'S GUN CULTURE: Ghost guns 'are in the shadows'

Jul. 6—Guns owned by Christopher T. Fernanders were seized from his possession before he fatally shot his ex-wife and her friend outside a Monroe Township restaurant in July 2020.

That didn't deter Fernanders who purchased gun parts to build a 980 polymer 9mm pistol, or ghost gun, used in the slayings of Heather Sue Campbell, 47, of Trevorton, and Matthew T. Bowersox, 52, of Mifflinburg, after his weapons were taken following a protection-from-abuse filing against him by Campbell.

It was the first confirmed criminal case involving a ghost gun prosecuted by Snyder County District Attorney Michael Piecuch.

"The nature of ghost guns is that they are in the shadows," he said of the untraceable firearms that are assembled from kits. "We don't know the scope of it."

The problem with this type of gun, Piecuch said, is they allow people to obtain them without a background check and "creates a real danger.

"It puts guns in the hands of people who shouldn't have them. It's an end run around background checks, PFAs, mental health and security checks. Polymer plastic doesn't often get picked up by metal detectors," he said.

Fernanders, according to notes he wrote that were found by police, intended to kill Campbell and then commit suicide but he was shot and wounded by a restaurant patron who was legally carrying a concealed gun. Fernanders pleaded guilty in January to the double murder and is serving a life sentence.

Piecuch supports state and federal efforts to put serial numbers on manufactured gun parts used to assemble a ghost gun to track what are now untraceable weapons.

In April, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was updating the definition of a firearm to make ghost guns subject to the same rules as traditional weapons and, in August 2022, would require gun part kits to contain serial numbers.

"One year ago, the department committed to address the proliferation of ghost guns used in violent crimes," said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. "This rule will make it harder for criminals and other prohibited persons to obtain untraceable guns, will help ensure that law enforcement officers can retrieve the information they need to solve crimes, and will help reduce the number of untraceable firearms flooding our communities."

According to the Department of Justice, the ATF received about 45,240 reports of suspected ghost guns recovered by law enforcement from January 2016 to December 2021. Nearly 700 of those reports involved homicide or attempted homicide.