The Undetectable Firearms Act and 3D Printing

Huffington Post has an article today about the ongoing effort of U.S. Congressman Steve Israel to have the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act renewed before its expiration at the end of the year. Israel’s efforts have found him at odds with University of Texas law student Cody Wilson’s organization Defense Distributed, a group that has dedicated itself to advancing efforts to 3D print guns and share the designs. It seems like a good time to take a closer look at the laws we’re talking about and why they matter. The current law states:

(1) It shall be unlawful for any person to manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer, or receive any firearm—

(A) that, after removal of grips, stocks, and magazines, is not as detectable as the Security Exemplar, by walk-through metal detectors calibrated and operated to detect the Security Exemplar; or
(B) any major component of which, when subjected to inspection by the types of x-ray machines commonly used at airports, does not generate an image that accurately depicts the shape of the component. Barium sulfate or other compounds may be used in the fabrication of the component.

The words ‘manufacture’ and ‘possess’ are of particular importance to people excited about the prospect of 3D printing their own guns. Since current 3D printed guns would likely be made of a non-x-ray-detectable plastic, they seem fairly likely to be captured by this provision.

Yet, despite this prohibition, it is hard to determine whether, even if renewed, the act will stop people like Mr. Wilson. Despite the ban on undetectable firearms, a further section states that many of the prohibitions do not apply to a “licensed manufacturer or any person acting pursuant to a contract with a licensed manufacturer, for the purpose of examining and testing such firearm to determine whether paragraph (1) applies to such firearm.” As we noted previously, Wilson has registered as a federally licensed gun manufacturer. These exceptions are not quite as broad as the prohibitions – you still can’t sell the prohibited weapons, even with a license. And I’d say it’s highly debatable whether Mr. Wilson’s efforts have anything to do with testing to see if the ban applies to his guns or not.

But perhaps more troubling for those who fear the proliferation of 3D printed guns is that the very next sentence reads: “The Attorney General shall ensure that rules and regulations adopted pursuant to this paragraph do not impair the manufacture of prototype firearms or the development of new technology.” This seems like a clear statement meant to guide interpretation of the law – and it seems on its face like 3D printing fits the bill.

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