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Undetectable Firearms

3D Printed Guns: What’s the Best Way to Legislate?

Picture of Lily Kelting
by Lily Kelting
Jan 12, 2016

US Congressman Steve Israel wants 3D printed guns included in new gun control laws. Given the difficult history of the subject, does he have a chance?

From the very moment when 3D printed weapons became a reality, New York Congressman Steve Israel has proposed legislation to curtail their use and proliferation.

Just a few days after the first 3D printed gun fired shots, Israel’s office sent out a press release encouraging a ban on 3D printed weapons as part of his co-sponsored bill, the Undetectable Firearms Act.

This act was originally passed in 1988 and has been up for renewal every ten years since, and makes it illegal to “manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer, or receive” non-metal weapons that evade detection on security scans.

Israel’s office has a long history of gun control legislation, and this immediate response to the reality of  3D printed weaponry was one of the first and most visible. And now the issue is back on the table with the Undetectible Firearms Modernization Act of 2015.

As it turns out, the 2013 update of the Undetectable Firearms Act passed without Israel’s amendments, which would have included stipulations for 3D printed guns. But this didn’t stop Israel, who sponsored legislation controlling 3D printed weapons this summer.

A vote on this new legislation hasn’t been taken yet. What are the chances of success in his campaign?

3d printed guns steve israel

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning…

3D printed guns have a short but dramatic history. It started in 2013 when Cody Wilson — then a law student at the University of Texas — used a Stratasys 3D printer to print a gun of his own design: The Liberator.

The Liberator is single-shot and plastic, and it’s as much a political statement and provocation as it is a functional weapon. It looks, frankly, a bit ridiculous. But all things being equal, it’s a real gun that fires real bullets. So provoke it did.

The State Department ordered Wilson to take the files for the Liberator parts off his company’s website, on the grounds that these weapons were then evading International Traffic in Arms Regulations. The company complied.

But now, Defense Distributed and a team of lawyers are suing the State Department for infringing on the circulation of free speech. While it’s up to the courts to decide, the use of the first amendment to defend the second is a bold — even terrifying– legal maneuver.

This might sound more like empty posturing than anything else. Are there really that many crypto-anarchists who are as passionate about open-source technology as they are about guns? It’s documented that a much bigger issue in preventing gun violence is the massive availability of illegal firearms on the black market at only-slightly-elevated prices.

“Why would a criminal look to bypass the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) by investing in expensive and emerging 3D printing technology to get clunky single-shots,” argues  Frank Miniter for Forbes,”when they can get all the proven semiautomatics they want for a little more than retail?”

3d printed guns cody wilson

Magazines are the Main Issue with 3D Printed Guns

But here’s what is happening: more and more guns are being assembled from with parts that available on the market. The guns used in the San Bernadino shootings in November, for example, were modified to accept more ammunition; the guns were also modified so that they could function as illegal, automatic weapons.

And so legal experts point to the future of 3D printing guns as part of this larger trend — not printing weapons entirely from plastic, but instead component parts — to circumvent the gun control laws that are on the books.

What is usually regulated is not an entire gun but the lower receiver, the lower half housing the magazine and containing the serial number. And so there have been a rash of “80 percent receivers” which, because they are only 80 percent finished, are not monitored by the government and can be used to create untraceable ghost guns.

They are, according to this Wired gonzo journalist who machined one in Wired’s downtown San Francisco offices, not at all hard to make or print. Liberator inventor Cody Wilson’s lower receiver for his homemade AK47 is orangey plastic, 3D printed, and has fired about 1,200 rounds.

So the three extra words tacked on to Israel’s new legislation, the Undectectable Firearms Modernization Act of 2015, are posed to make a big impact, making illegal guns and their components that fail to set off security screening devices. And this part of the movement is gaining steam. California Congressman Mike Honda representing Silicon Valley wants to subject “home-made and home-assembled” guns to the same regulations as those bought in stores.

But incredibly, the National Rifle Association (NRA) sees things differently. In a statement, they have asserted that they oppose “ANY expansion of the Undetectable Firearms Act.”

But what the NRA has done in responding pre-emptively to this proposed legislation is to put home-made and home-assembled guns back at the center of gun control debate. By making the UFA about 3D printed gun components, it draws attention to the phenomenon of ghost-guns and assembled-guns which remains a huge threat to the regulation of gun sales and use in America.


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