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    Congress's Plastic Gun Ban Left a 3D-Printed Loophole

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Defense Distributed's Liberator pistol, via Defcad

    From the moment we first saw 3D-printed guns, one question has remained: How will legislators respond? Yesterday saw the conclusion of the first substantial Congressional discussion about 3D-printed guns, and the result is a 10-year extension on a 25-year-old ban on plastic guns. The deal, signed by President Obama last night, is a reaffirmation of the status quo, and largely leaves 3D-printed guns untouched by regulation.

    The law in question is the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act (UFA), which bans guns that can't be picked up by metal detectors or x-ray scanners. It was set to expire at midnight last night, and a bill for a 10 year extension was supported by both sides of the aisle in the Senate and House. Even the National Rifle Association stayed mum on the issue, which is surprising given the group's staunch opposition to any gun control regulations proposed in the last few years.

    But because the law is designed to prevent someone with a plastic or composite gun sneaking past a metal detector, it only bans laws that can't be detected by scanners. That leaves a fairly obvious loophole: If a 3D-printed plastic gun can show up on a metal detector, it's not banned by the UFA. To highlight that very point, Defense Distributed, which has taken the lead on 3D-printed guns, developed a version of its fully 3D-printed Liberator pistol that has a small chunk of metal inside—just enough to trip metal detectors that, under the UFA, must be calibrated to detect 3.7 ounces of steel.

    Closing that loophole was the goal of a pair of New York congressmen, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Steve Israel, both Democrats. Israel introduced a separate bill a week ago that would require all plastic firearms to have metal pieces that cannot be removed without rendering the gun inoperable, which was stalled by House Republicans. Yesterday, Schumer tried to pass a similarly-amended version of House's bill, which extended the UFA unchanged, and that too failed in the face of Republican opposition.

    Schumer argued his bill was simply common sense. "Technology has advanced so not only are these guns real but they can be made so that the law that exists and expires tonight can be evaded,” Schumer said last night, according to Politico. “I haven’t heard one specific argument against our closing the loophole.”

    But Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) led the opposition, arguing that Schumer's change was a sudden switch and that "the Senate had not effectively probed the new technology through congressional hearings," per the same Politico story.

    Opposition to an amendment requiring that metal in a gun be permanent goes against the spirit of the law; the only reason to remove the metal would be to make it undetectable, which is illegal. It also comes across as needlessly obstructionist; the UFA is acceptable, but closing an obvious loophole to manufacturers of plastic guns to remain in compliance is not? It's unclear why Grassley feels that having the ability to make a plastic gun undetectable is important, which is probably why he argued against the amendment by saying Congress hadn't discussed it enough.

    But arguing over where bits of metal in a plastic gun should be removable misses the larger point by a wide margin. Current legislation is still not equipped to deal with 3D-printed guns, and whether you think that's a good thing or not, it doesn't appear that Congress has yet grasped the import of guns that can be produced from plans on the internet.

    In chats with Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson, it's clear that he's driven by a desire to point out loopholes and absurdities in US gun laws. Congress's latest squabbling is illustrative of Wilson's larger point: Say Congress somehow agreed that metal pieces in plastic guns must be permanent. Say that Congress went ahead and banned 3D-printed guns altogether, or ruled they violate trade laws, as the State Department did. Now that plans are out on the Internet and being constantly refined, what's a ban actually going to do?

    How you feel about that depends largely on your views on gun politics in general. There's no denying, however, that 3D-printed firearms represent a vast departure from the legislative norm; while gunsmithing can be learned, 3D printing a firearm from the web is far easier and less expensive, which—if things continue as they are now—means more widespread access to more disposable firearms.

    That's a massive change, and one officials have largely sidestepped so far. Law enforcement has shown a fair bit of skepticism towards the durability of 3D-printed firearms, especially after one exploded in testing. But development has already produced noticeable results. Meanwhile, Congress is arguing over whether or not plastic guns need to always show up on metal detectors, which, by ignoring distribution entirely, is about the most sideways method of discussing 3D-printed guns possible. If Congress's only thoughts on 3D-printed guns are whether or not they show up on x-rays, what happens when they're printed out of metal?