3D printed guns under spotlight in US law renewal

Congress expected to extend prohibition of firearms that can evade metal detectors amid calls for tougher restrictions

US Congress is heading towards renewing a prohibition against firearms that can evade metal detectors and X-ray machines. However, with 3D printers increasingly able to produce plastic weapons many Democrats, gun control advocates and law enforcement officials say the restrictions must be tightened.

The Republican-led House of Representatives is expected to approve a 10-year extension of the 25-year-old ban on Tuesday. Reluctant to oppose renewal and anger allies, Democrats are expected to back it strongly, despite their preference to also require permanent metal components that would make plastic firearms more detectable.

“We can’t let a minute or hour or day go by without having a renewal” of the ban, said Brian Malte, a director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The group’s strong concerns about the availability of plastic guns are “no reason to hold up renewal”, he said.

The Democratic-run Senate returns from a two-week Thanksgiving holiday break next Monday, the day before the ban expires. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said he will seek fast approval of a measure renewing the ban and tightening the restrictions.

But many believe the Senate will then accept the House bill, thanks to the imminent deadline and the eagerness of Democratic senators seeking re-election next year in Republican-leaning states to avoid difficult votes in a fresh battle over gun control.

The ban was first enacted in 1988 under President Ronald Reagan, when today’s computer and weapons technologies were in their early stages. It was renewed in 1998 and 2003.

Now 3D printers can spray repeated, thin layers of plastic or other materials to create objects from toys to automobile parts to medical devices. They are being used increasingly by companies, researchers and hobbyists, and the technology is constantly improving.

The use of 3D printers to make guns received heightened attention in May when Cody Wilson, then a University of Texas law student, posted blueprints online for using the printers to make the Liberator pistol, which he says he designed.

Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed, a nonprofit that advocates the free distribution of information on 3D printed weapons, was ordered by the State Department to take down the instructions after two days because of allegedly violating arms export controls, he said.

At that point, the plans had already been downloaded more than 100,000 times and they remain available on file-sharing websites, he said.

“If you want to do this, it’s plainly obvious there’s no one standing between you, your computer and your 3D printer. Anyone can make this gun,” Wilson said on Monday.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says 3D printers can cost from $1,000 to $500,000 but can also be leased.

“There are people who will go to any expense, there are groups who will go to any expense if the result is an undetectable firearm,” said James Pasco, executive director of the Washington office of the Fraternal Order of Police, representing law enforcement officers.

Earlier this year, ATF tested two guns made from different plastics using Wilson’s Liberator design. While one exploded when fired, the other shot eight rounds before ATF halted the test.

The expiring law forbids firearms that aren’t spotted by airport X-ray screening machines or metal detectors. To meet that requirement, today’s plastic guns often come with a metal part that can be detached and isn’t necessary for the weapon to function.

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