3D-printable guns will require us to rethink our approach on gun safety
Lost in the debate over gun safety is a technology that will force us to consider new ways to keep people safe: 3D-printable guns.
Until now, the gun safety debate has focused on balancing the legitimate rights of sportsmen and other law-abiding gun owners with keeping firearms out of unsafe hands – criminals, terrorists, and other prohibited purchasers. We’ve made progress. In February, a new majority in Congress passed long-overdue legislation to require universal background checks and close the Charleston loophole, which would lengthen the background check review period.
Background checks are supported by over 90 percent of the American people, and we urge the Senate to bring these bills up for consideration soon.
But there’s a stealth issue, hardly discussed. It’s 3D printers that now allow anyone with an internet connection to download a computer-aided design (CAD) file and print a working firearm at home. These guns are untraceable and – depending on the materials used to build them – undetectable by security systems in airports and elsewhere.
While 3D printing technologies are new, undetectable firearms are not. In the 1980’s, lawmakers found themselves confronting the Glock 17 and other pistols made from lightweight polymers. Legislators knew that if security screening devices in airports and elsewhere could not detect a weapon, then the country was far more vulnerable to terrorism and other security risks. In 1988, Congress passed the Undetectable Firearms Act, effectively making it illegal to produce, possess, or transfer a gun with less than 3.7 ounces of metal.
Today, however, gunmakers with a 3D printer can produce firearms that nominally meet this standard while evading its purpose. Their trick? Pack most or all of the metal into a detachable block, one that isn’t necessary to fire the gun and can be removed at any time.
These concerns aren’t theoretical.
In 2013, Defense Distributed produced the “Liberator” – a working 3D-printable handgun. The company posted the gun’s digital design files online, and they were downloaded more than 100,000 times – in two days. Then, the State Department stepped in, forcing Defense Distributed to take the files down because they violated export laws. Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson sued the federal government, and State reversed course – settling the lawsuit and permitting digital gun files to appear online once again. In response, a coalition of 19 state attorneys general and Washington, D.C. filed a separate suit, successfully winning a restraining order to keep the files offline.
Today, 3D-printable guns are in legal limbo. While Defense Distributed is currently barred from posting files online, digital firearm blueprints have found their way into circulation through other channels. For several weeks last fall, a book featuring the Liberator blueprints was available for purchase on Amazon. And digital firearm files have also appeared on CAD repositories and torrent sites.
In 2013, Rep. Israel co-led a successful effort (along with a conservative Republican and a progressive Democrat) to renew the original Undetectable Firearms Act and laid a foundation for legislation to address today’s challenges.
It’s time to carry those efforts forward. In January, Rep. Dean introduced the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act, which prohibits the possession of any firearm that is undetectable by airport-level detection devices. H.R. 869 requires any firearm with all of its major components attached to generate a gun-shaped image in the detection systems, and it expands the scope of airport security detection.
This legislation honors our Second Amendment rights while protecting travelers and communities from new threats posed by undetectable weapons. In other words, it strikes the right balance – and it deserves a vote in Congress.
Madeleine Dean represents Pennsylvania’s 4th District. She is a co-founder of the PA-SAFE Caucus and a lifelong advocate for gun violence prevention. You can find her on Twitter @repdean. Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.