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House extends plastic gun ban, leaves loophole for 3D-printed guns

The House of Representatives on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a 10-year extension of the Undetectable Firearms Act, a federal law that bans plastic guns or other firearms with low-metal constructions that can hide from metal detectors. What the law doesn’t do – because it was first enacted in 1988, well before the 3D printers became a thing – is require 3D-printed guns to have permanent metal inserts that ensure their detection at checkpoints, like those in court houses, schools, airports, and other public spaces. As you might guess, some lawmakers believe that’s a dangerous loophole.

The most well-known 3D-printed gun, dubbed the Liberator, is made of plastic, and designed to contain a metal block that lets it get picked up by metal detectors. In doing so, the Liberator does not violate the Undetectable Firearms Act. Thing is, the metal block is completely unnecessary for the gun’s function, and can be removed from the gun entirely. Because of this, concerned lawmakers believe the Undetectable Firearms Act should be amended to require that metal inserts in 3D-printed guns be made permanent.

“The House bill is better than nothing, but it’s not good enough,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told CNN. “We absolutely must close the loophole that allows anyone to legally make a gun that could be rendered invisible by the easy removal of its metal part. Under current law, it is legal to make a plastic gun so long as it has some metal in it, even if it is easily removable. The bill we’ll try to pass in the Senate would fix that.”

Sen. Schumer has sponsored a bill that would only extend the Undetectable Firearms Act for one year, which he says would give Congress the time to hash out amendments that apply to 3D-printed guns. If lawmakers tried to include such amendments now, the theory goes, the entire legislative body would slip into a partisan coma, the plastic gun ban would expire entirely (which it’s set to do on Monday, Dec. 9, if Senators don’t approve it), and all hell would break loose … or something like that.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who has spoken out about the potential dangers of 3D-printed guns since January, introduced a bill he calls the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act, which would have required the permanent metal inserts in 3D-printed plastic guns, but it failed to gain any traction in the House.

Supporters of 3D-printed guns argue that laws requiring permanent metal inserts are both unnecessary and unfeasible. A 3D-printed gun is expensive and time-consuming to make, rendering it unlikely that they’ll become a widespread problem, they argue. And the 3D printing process makes it impossible to stop and insert a piece of metal that can’t be removed. Some supporters of 3D-printed guns see attempts to update the Undetectable Firearms Act with restrictive provisions as an assault on gun owners and makers.

Fears about 3D-printed guns don’t stop with metal detector evasion, however. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) recently displayed how these guns can explode when made with the wrong kind of plastic.

What are your thoughts on regulating 3D-printed guns: dangerous threat or promising innovation?