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Lawmakers rush to ban 3D-printed guns, but enforcement options are murky

Lawmakers rush to ban 3D-printed guns, but enforcement options are murky


Local legislators take aim at a plastic pistol

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Defense Distributed's attempts to 3D print a firearm have always been a shot across the bow of politicians. The group made a point of naming its ammo magazines after anti-gun legislators, and founder Cody Wilson has said the project is a way to make laws about who can buy a gun virtually moot. Now that the group has actually created and fired an almost fully printed gun, there's a scramble to figure out whether that claim is actually airtight.

Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) has repeatedly referenced the threat of 3D-printed guns in his attempts to pass the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act, which would renew a ban on difficult-to-detect "plastic guns." While the Liberator includes a metal slug to comply with the law, it could be easily removed in future printings. Earlier this week, two lawmakers in the District of Columbia and California announced plans to follow in Rep. Israel's footsteps. "An undetectable firearm constructed on your computer may sound like science fiction, but unfortunately, it's already here and our laws have never contemplated this scenario," wrote DC councilmember Tommy Wells on Tuesday, announcing his intent to legislate them. California senator Leland Yee made a similar declaration, decrying "untraceable and anonymously-produced guns."

"We have to approach it as, this law is set to expire."

Charles Allen, Wells' chief of staff, says Wells' law is essentially meant to update and renew gun laws that are already on the books. Chief among them is the federal Undetectable Firearms Act. It's currently due to expire at the end of 2013, and Allen says that "we here in the District don't have a high level of confidence" that Rep. Israel will manage to renew it. Indeed, as he notes, Congress has shown reluctance to pass virtually any of the gun control measures proposed recently. "We have to approach it as, this law is set to expire." Wells' proposal would also take aim at unlicensed manufacturers. "The way that you regulate firearms is through licensers and registrations," says Allen. "If I can create a gun in my house, it's not going to be printed with serial numbers, it's not going to be on sale."

DC already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, and Wells' plan isn't out of line with them. Both concealed and open carry are banned, and every firearm must be registered with District police. These requirements mean Allen isn't worried about problems with enforcement. "If you're caught with a gun that is not allowed, not registered and not licensed, there are repercussions," he says. "From our perspective, a gun is a gun, and we've just never contemplated that you can print your own."

"From our perspective, a gun is a gun."

A continent away in California, Senator Yee seems much less sure what his model will be. At this stage, he's simply "announced his intention" to bring a bill, which means his staff is working to come up with a real plan; Dan Lieberman, the district director of Yee's office, says he's currently asking California's Legislative Counsel for opinions. Whether a ban on 3D-printed guns can realistically be enforced is "really the question that we are seeking to answer at the moment, so we are perhaps a little early on this."

While it's possible to make your own firearms under federal law, California's penal code bans making or owning short-barreled "unconventional pistols" or improvised "zip guns," which can be produced at home from everyday materials. Unlike in the tiny District of Columbia, though, actually enforcing gun laws in California is a taller order. Earlier this year, state law enforcement officials complained that they didn't have the funding to confiscate roughly 40,000 illegally owned firearms, until a bill was passed authorizing the money last week.

Lawmakers in other states and cities are likely to come up with their own takes on Israel's or Wells' plans, but the question remains whether they'll make a difference to people who want to print a gun, and how much 3D printing will actually lower the barrier to firearm ownership. The tiny Liberator pistol was made using a high-resolution, professional-grade 3D printer, and even cheaper consumer versions like the MakerBot Replicator can cost upwards of $2,000. A traditional handgun can be found for a few hundred dollars.

The Liberator itself, meanwhile, isn't likely to be particularly accurate or durable. But like the previous magazine or AR-15 lower, it's a step towards the ultimate goal of letting anyone make a gun, and that technology is clearly improving fast. Yee and Wells hope to find a way to prevent widespread home manufacture of firearms before the technology gets to that point.