Guest column: Renew ban on plastic guns

Miami Herald

The following editorial appeared in the Miami Herald on Monday, Dec. 2:

Homemade plastic guns that can shoot real bullets aren’t toys from Santa’s workshop, but rather lethal weapons made more easily attainable through the burgeoning technology of 3-D printers.

Yet the federal limits on plastic guns, the Undetectable Firearms Act, first signed into law by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1988, is set to expire on Dec. 9 unless Congress acts to extend it.

All-plastic guns can easily slip past metal detectors at airports and other safety checkpoints.

This should be an easy, doable job even in this most dyspeptic season for federal lawmakers. The law has been renewed twice since it was first passed, after all.

And yet, law-enforcement officials who support the extension are getting concerned as they watch yet another political squabble threaten to derail reauthorization of the act.

One issue is over whether to simply extend the law or amend it to include provisions that would address the issue of 3-D printed weapons.

The law currently requires 3-D gun manufacturers to have to make the weapons detectable by including some form of metal, but that metal piece often is nonfunctioning and can be easily removed to avoid screeners’ detection.

And even though 3-D printing technology is still relatively new because it’s costly and has limited public availability, Congress should include provisions requiring 3-D printed guns to include a necessary, non-detachable piece of metal. Though 3-D printers aren’t a common household item these days, technology waits for no one, including lawmakers usually slow to catch up with new inventions and advancements.

The Senate recently deferred a measure to extend the law for a year because some Republicans feared that Democrats would try to use the bill to include other gun-restriction provisions when it expires in an additional 12 months. This is ridiculous. Especially since the House is expected to approve a 10-year extension this week. If the unruly House can agree on an extension, surely the Senate can pull itself together long enough to do the same.

The National Rifle Association, the powerful pro-gun group that makes so many lawmakers quiver and quake whenever gun control is mentioned, hasn’t, as of this writing, yet taken a public stand on the reauthorization or new 3-D printer restrictions.

That should make it easier for timid lawmakers to back both the extensions and new metal-detection provisions.

The threat is real. According to a Nov. 29 New York Times article, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recently assembled a plastic gun using designs downloaded from a Texas self-defense group. The gun could fire multiple .380-caliber metal bullets, according to The Times. The Texas group, Defense Distributed, was ordered by federal officials to remove the designs from its website.

But once something like this goes online it’s hard to eliminate it completely from the eyes of curious viewers and would-be killers alike.

It’s unfathomable why it remains so difficult for our elected leaders to enact even the most modest curbs on gun ownership in this country.

Surely, for the sake of bolstering travelers’ safety, and to ensure safety in our schools, shopping malls and theaters — all sites of recent multiple shootings — our lawmakers can restrict the access to plastic guns and make them detectable without turning the issue into another political stalemate.