Guns that cannot be detected by X-ray machines will no longer be banned if Congress does not renew the decades-old prohibition by Dec. 9.
The 1998 Undetectable Firearms Act will sunset that day, ending the prohibition at a time when new technology has made it easier than ever before to manufacture plastic guns with 3-D printers.
That threat was little more than “science fiction,” when Congress overwhelmingly backed the ban 25 years ago,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who is pressing legislation to renew the law.
“We didn’t think it would be a good idea to let the bad guys get a gun through metal detectors,” Israel said.
But with Congress away for a Thanksgiving recess and congressional Republicans in no apparent hurry to address the ban, the chances of a lapse in the ban are growing.
“I’m getting more skeptical,” Israel told The Hill.
Before the Senate adjourned Thursday night, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) floated a request for unanimous consent to reauthorize the law for one year. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) objected, effectively blocking any action in the upper chamber until at least Dec. 9, they day the Senate returns and the law is set to expire.
Sessions signaled a willingness to renew the law after the holiday.
“We will be glad to give it serious attention,” he said Thursday evening. “I know it is the kind of thing we probably can clear at some point, but I object.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said it was Senate Democrats who were to blame for refusing to work with Republicans on a separate proposal reauthorize the law for either five or ten years.
"Congressional Republicans support a lengthy extension of the ban on firearms that cannot be picked up by metal detectors," Grassley said Tuesday via a written statement. "The Senate Majority consciously and consistently rebuffed our efforts to continue the prohibition for five to ten more years."
The law has traditionally enjoyed broad support in both parties, passing the House by a tally of 413 to four in 1988.
It was renewed 10 years later and again five years after that, most recently via a noncontroversial voice vote.
But gun-control legislation has become increasingly controversial in recent years, as evidenced by the defeat in April of a bipartisan Senate measure seeking to extend federal background check legislation to all commercial gun sales.
The amendment from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) was among a host legislative gun control measures offered in the months after last December’s elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
All failed in the face of fierce opposition from gun rights activists, who said the bills would violate the Second Amendment. Some groups oppose legislation to renew the undetectable gun ban on similar grounds.
“We would say, just leave it be — let it go,” said Erich Pratt, spokesman for the group Gun Owners of America. “We look at even that law as an infringement.”
Pratt argued that the law does nothing to keep undetectable guns out of the hands of criminals with no regard for the law in the first place.
“It’s not going to stop bad guys from making them,” he said.
Earlier this year, a Texas man caused a stir after posting detailed instructions for making a plastic gun with a 3-D printer. Thousands of people downloaded the blueprints, as did the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The agency built and tested a model, and released videos showing the weapon being fired.
Both Schumer and Israel stressed that they are supportive of 3-D printer technology, which is seen as having major upside for the American manufacturing industry.
Pro-gun groups note that it’s far easier to obtain guns — legally or otherwise — through longstanding channels than it would be to build one. But gun control advocates say the new technology presents real danger.
“We have a deep, deep concern about 3-D guns,” said Brian Malte, senior national policy director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Malte said the group is communication with legislative staffers about extending the ban. Those discussions could include consideration of whether to attach additional language to the law, he said.
“It’s just a question of whether the votes are there at the very end,” he said.
But any additional restrictions could make extending the ban more contentious, particularly if the language includes targets 3-D printers, said Pratt of the gun owners group.
Israel emphasized that his bill does not single out the printers. The legislation would add language clarifying that all firearms contain metal parts, so that they would set off a metal detector, he said.
Ultimately, the law’s backers appear more focused on keeping in place than expanding its scope.
“We are looking at a world in which anyone with a little bit of cash can bring an undetectable gun, that can fire multiple bullets, anywhere — including planes, government buildings, sporting events and schools,” Schumer said in a written statement to The Hill.
“This ban cannot be allowed to expire.”
Ramsey Cox contributed.