PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Days after a Pawtucket woman was fatally shot by a gun that police say appears to have been made with a 3D printer, a state senator said she will again sponsor legislation banning these and other “ghost guns.”
The so-called ghost guns are handmade firearms, assembled from parts that a buyer can obtain without going through criminal background checks required for regular gun purchases. These types of guns have no serial numbers, making them untraceable.
The 3D printed firearms, often made of plastic, add a greater public safety risk, state Senator Cynthia A. Coyne said Friday. “Anyone with access to a 3D printer can make weapons that are undetectable and untraceable," she said.
Coyne, a retired Rhode Island state police lieutenant, sponsored a bill last year making it a crime to manufacture, sell or possess ghost guns and guns made by a 3D printing process. Those convicted could serve up to 10 years in prison.
The bill passed the Senate, but failed to move in the House. Coyne said this will be one of the first bills she’ll introduce in the new session that starts next week.
She has the support of Senate President Domenick J. Ruggerio, who said in an interview last month that the Senate would back this bill again. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Peter Neronha also said that office would support it.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello was noncommittal. “Should legislation be introduced the upcoming session, the House Judiciary Committee will give it a full and fair public hearing and careful consideration," said Mattiello’s spokesman, Larry Berman.
Coyne said she had already planned to reintroduce the bill, after seeing a rise in anecdotes about ghost guns and 3D printed guns being used in crimes across the country. “Like all technology, 3D printing will only improve in quality,” she said.
Then came New Year’s Day, when Pawtucket police found 54-year-old Cheryl Smith fatally shot in her home. Police said the young couple charged with her murder -- Jack Doherty, 23, of Albany, and Shaylyn Moran, 18, of Pawtucket -- had used a 9mm handgun that appeared to be made from 3D printed parts. Smith was the mother of Moran’s ex-boyfriend.
The police are sending the gun to the Rhode Island State Crime Lab at the University of Rhode Island to be forensically examined.
Detective Sgt. Christopher LeFort said police want the lab to determine exactly how the gun was made, and whether it uses parts from a kit or 3D printed parts.
“This is something we have not come across,” LeFort said Friday.
According to the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a person can make a firearm for personal use, but someone making guns for sale or distribution must be licensed by ATF. Any homemade firearm made from material that’s undetectable by metal detectors is illegal under federal law.
California requires residents to register their homemade guns with law enforcement. As of late last year, only NJ had outlawed the purchase of self-assembled weapons, though some Massachusetts lawmakers were considering sponsoring legislation.
Ghost guns, in general, are fairly rare in Rhode Island. The attorney general’s office said Friday it has only had three cases that, in total, involved about a dozen ghost guns.
More than a year ago, the ATF charged a Cranston man with manufacturing a “ghost” machine gun on his houseboat in Pawtuxet Cove. In Providence, where police seized 115 crime guns last year, Major David Lapatin could recall only one or two that were ghost guns.
Crime lab director Dennis Hilliard said the Pawtucket gun will be the lab’s first ghost gun -- and that will pose some challenges.
Homemade ghost guns, particularly 3D printed with plastic, can be dangerous for examiners, Hilliard said. “We would be reluctant to test fire, because of the chance of it exploding on us,” he said.
Other methods that examiners use to compare firearms and bullets won’t be simple.
A steel gun barrel is harder than the metal used to make bullets, so the unique markings in the barrel will make an impression on projectiles when they’re fired, Hilliard said. That’s what examiners use to connect projectiles found at crime scenes with the right firearm.
But plastics are softer, and it’s unclear what markings, if any, will be on the bullets fired from a plastic gun, Hilliard said.
“Bottom line,” he said, “we have to see the gun.”
A Facebook account that police say appeared to be used by Doherty offers clues in photos and comments about the gun in various stages of completion. The first photo was posted Dec. 11, with comments from Doherty that he made the gun on his day off: “the carbon piece i cut off from something and use crazy glue to mold it. im a master with crazy glue.”
On Dec. 22, a photo of the handgun pointing down at a bathroom sink, with “cal. 9mm” on the black barrel. Doherty commented: “after much material removal the custom magwell and now paint , shes finally ready.”
The profile picture is a selfie of Doherty with the muzzle of the gun pointing at the viewer.
With reports from staff writer Edward Fitzpatrick