Iowa Sheriff Calls for 'Ghost Gun' Bill, But Can't Explain Why It Would Help

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

An Iowa sheriff and prosecutor are coming out publicly in favor of a bill banning so-called ghost guns, while claiming to be "strong supporters of the Second Amendment". Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson and County Attorney Brian Williams are backing House File 488, a bill sponsored by a half-dozen Democrats that would make it a felony offense to possess an unserialized firearm in the state, as well as requiring the Department of Public Safety to "develop and maintain a system to distribute unique serial number or other mark of identification" for those building their own firearms at home; in essence establishing a gun registry for home-built guns. 

I don't know about you, but that doesn't strike me as a Second Amendment-friendly piece of legislation, especially since Thompson and Williams can't explain how, exactly, this would stop criminals from building an unserialized firearm or using it in a crime. Instead of building a case, they expect us to just take their word that HF 488 would make a difference. 

Like other technologies, the private means for building firearms will inevitability become more efficient, precise and portable. It will not be long before organized crime groups, terrorist organizations and other bad actors have the capability to produce dozens, perhaps hundreds, of firearms within days or weeks.

The proposed ghost gun bill does not prohibit firearm hobbyists, hunters, or non-prohibited Iowans from purchasing unassembled gun kits or making downloadable firearms. However, once the gun parts are built into a working firearm, the bill requires an FFL serial number to be stamped into the gun’s receiver or frame. After the firearm is properly serialized, possession, transfer and sale are handled in accordance with existing state laws.

If I understand their argument correctly, "ghost guns" are going to become far more common thanks to technological advances, so they want to require all legal gun owners (you know, the folks who aren't committing a lot of crimes) to serialize their guns. How exactly will this prevent violent criminals from building or using their own unserialized firearms? The pair never get around to explaining that part. 

As strong supporters of the Second Amendment, we believe gun rights must not be at odds with investigating and prosecuting violent gun crimes (i.e., stopping bad guys with guns). Ghost guns greatly impede the ability of law enforcement officers and county attorneys to carry out these duties. With the inevitable improvements in the technology of private gun manufacturing the ghost gun problem will become much worse. Based on decades of investigating and prosecuting violent crime in Iowa, we believe it is time for the Iowa Legislature to pass a ghost gun bill. If you share our concerns, please contact the members of the Iowa House Public Safety Committee, and urge them to support House File 488.

How would House File 488 stop a bad guy with a gun? At best it would give sheriffs like Thompson and prosecutors like Williams another charge to file after they catch someone with an unserialized firearm, but it won't stop anyone from building their own. It would also arguably run afoul of the Iowa Constitution, which was amended by a vote of the people in 2022 to state "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The sovereign state of Iowa affirms and recognizes this right to be a fundamental individual right. Any and all restrictions of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny."

A strict scrutiny standard would require the state to prove a "ghost gun" law is necessary to achieve a compelling state interest, is narrowly tailored to achieve that goal, and uses the least restrictive means to do so. If the goal of House File 488 is to stop violent criminals from using unserialized firearms, this is hardly a narrow approach or the least restrictive way to go about it. A law that increases the punishment for a violent crime when an unserialized firearm is used, just as many states have more generic firearm enhancements that come into play when guns are involved in the commission of a crime, would be far more narrowly tailored than one that requires all lawful gun builders to serialize and register their privately-assembled arms with the state.

No matter how strongly Thompson and Williams assert their support for the Second Amendment, the fact is that House File 488 is sponsored by a handful of anti-gun Democrats and would have a far bigger impact on legal gun owners than prohibited persons. From where I stand, that makes it a gun control bill, and one that should go absolutely nowhere in the Iowa legislature.