Why We Need the Undetectable Firearms Act
In May 2013, a company called Defense Distributed posted instructions online which explained the step-by-step process for how to use a 3-D printer to manufacture a working plastic gun. During the 48 hours the instructions were available online, more than 100,000 copies were downloaded. These guns are lethal—capable of injuring vital organs or piercing a skull from close range—and because they can be made entirely of plastic, they don’t set off metal detectors or look like guns in x-ray machines. Today, these guns are illegal—but unless Congress renews the Undetectable Firearms Act, they won’t be on December 10th.
What’s the Law?
Undetectable, fully plastic guns have been illegal for a quarter of a century—long before it was ever possible to print them using blueprints found on the internet. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Undetectable Firearms Act, which outlawed the manufacture, importation, possession, or transfer of any gun that wouldn’t set off a metal detector or show up in x-ray scanners. At the time, the law was prescient and did not apply to any guns on the market. After 10 years, that initial law had reached its sunset date, and President Clinton signed a bill reauthorizing it to maintain the requirement that every gun contain enough metal to set off a metal detector. Five years later, it was reauthorized yet again under President George W. Bush. That most recent renewal extended the law through December 9th, 2013.
What’s the Risk?
Right now, every gun, including those printed by a 3-D printer, is required by law to include about 4 ounces of metal—enough to set off walk-through metal detectors and wands like those found at airports, federal courthouses, government buildings, and even rock concerts. But if the Undetectable Firearms Act is allowed to expire, a fully plastic gun would be perfectly legal, so someone could print one on a 3-D printer and carry it into any of these venues undetected. That presents a terrifying opportunity for terrorists, organized crime syndicates, or assassins who want to board a plane, silence a prosecution witness, or make a political statement in the Capitol, and it is exactly why the Attorney General, the ATF, the TSA, and law enforcement across the country are worried.
Who Supports it?
The Undetectable Firearms Act is not controversial. It has regularly been renewed under Presidents of both parties, and it has always been passed as a bipartisan bill with the support of gun-rights organizations, including the NRA, who urged Members of Congress to pass the bill and “remov[e] the issue beyond current political debates” last time it was on the floor. When the bill was first passed, its list of cosponsors included Republican Senators Chuck Grassley (IA), Orrin Hatch (UT), and Strom Thurmond (SC). It passed the House the first time 413 to 4. The Senate passed it initially with a simple voice vote. In 1998, it easily passed through both chambers as part of an appropriations bill. And the last time the legislation was reauthorized, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Senator Hatch were the lead sponsors, and it passed the House on a voice vote and the Senate by unanimous consent. The Undetectable Firearms Act is not a new law and reauthorizing it is not novel, but with the advent of 3-D printing technology, it is even more crucial. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) have introduced a bill which would do just that, and Congress should ensure that this legislation is signed into law before the expiration date. The stakes are higher now than they’ve ever been, and this is no time to take a gamble on plastic guns.