Plastic guns made by 3-D printers: Should Congress impose a ban?

An online group is preparing to release plans for how to make a plastic gun with a 3-D printer. The gun could be built to be undetectable to airport screeners, leading to worries in Congress.

Globe Newswire
Nokia has created a free downloadable 3-D printing file to allow those interested in 3-D printing to custom-make their own phone case for the latest Nokia Lumia smart phones on a MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer. An online group is considering releasing the printing file for making a plastic gun.

A new front is emerging in the debate over gun control in the United States, as some members of Congress seek to ban firearms that can be made through the technology of 3-D printing.

The technology opens the door for people to create guns, using plans downloaded from the Internet, that could elude detection in security screenings at places such as airports.

3-D printers are becoming increasingly common as tools for making three-dimensional objects out of plastic or similar materials, much the way a traditional printer applies ink to paper based on instructions from a computer.

Controversy about the technology’s use in making guns revved up in recent days, with a private group that dubs itself the “wiki weapon project” preparing to release plans for constructing a handgun that could be made almost entirely with pieces from a 3-D printer.

The gun can operate with 16 printed parts and one nonprinted component, an ordinary nail used as a firing pin. According to news reports, the gun also has a compartment to insert a six-ounce piece of steel – to make it visible in a metal detector, as required by the Undetectable Firearms Act.

“Security checkpoints, background checks, and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print plastic firearms at home and bring those firearms through metal detectors with no one the wiser,” Rep. Steve Israel (D) of New York said in a statement released Friday. “When I started talking about the issue of plastic firearms months ago, I was told the idea of a plastic gun is science-fiction. Now that this technology appears to be upon us, we need to act now to extend the ban on plastic firearms.”

On Sunday Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York added his support for new legislation to contain the threat if such guns are used for criminal purposes.

“A spousal abuser, a felon, can essentially open a gun factory in their garage,” Senator Schumer said. All that’s needed is a “computer and a little over $1,000 [for the printer]. And you don’t even have to leave your house.”

Schumer said the plastic handgun would “not be detectable by a metal detector at any airport or a sporting event.”

Representative Israel’s proposed legislation is called the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act. His website says the law would make it illegal “to manufacture, own, transport, buy, or sell any firearm, receiver, or magazine that is homemade and not detectable by metal detector and/or does not present an accurate image when put through an X-ray machine.”

The group releasing the online weapon plans taps into the “wiki” concept of open-source information, only in this case the focus is on gunmaking rather than, say, an online encyclopedia.

The group’s formal name is Defense Distributed, and its founder is a University of Texas law student, Cody Wilson.

A question-and-answer section on the group’s website says it has always been legal in the US to make one’s own firearm. “If we truly believe information should be free, that the internet is the last bastion of freedom and knowledge, and that societies that share are superior to societies that censor and withhold, then why not guns?”

The website also says, “This project might change the way we think about gun control and consumption. How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the Internet? Let’s find out.”

Although this gunmaking technology is relatively new, the controversy it has spawned runs along lines similar to the wider debate on gun control and the Constitution’s Second Amendment.

Defenders of Mr. Wilson’s handgun say criminals can already get guns, and that the plastic weapons will be a fact of life for police to reckon with, even if Congress passes a ban.

Supporters of limits say a society with gun rights can also take prudent steps to reduce access to weapons that are particularly dangerous – in this case because they are hard to detect – without violating civil liberties.

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