The Deadly Plastic Gun Loophole the House Extension Leaves in Place

The House managed to pass an extension of a gun control law Tuesday. But the Undetectable Firearms Act ignores technological advances at the public’s peril.

12.04.13 10:45 AM ET

While holding the record for the least-productive and most unpopular Congress in memory, the Republican-controlled House took a sudden turn Tuesday and passed by voice vote a 10-year extension of a federal gun control law. That’s right, gun control, an issue that typically raises the hackles of the GOP, making the House’s quick action all the more stunning. The reason for the hurried burst of bipartisanship is a 10-year extension of the Undetectable Firearms Act, due to expire Monday, which mandates that all guns include metal parts that are detectable by screeners used at airports, courthouses, and other venues where public safety is at risk.

The legislation is the product of a rare alliance between a liberal New Yorker and a North Carolina conservative, Democratic Rep. Steve Israel and Republican Rep. Howard Coble. That’s the good news. The bad news for advocates of gun safety is that the law does not take into account technological advances that allow the creation, with a 3-D printer, of plastic guns that don’t rely on metal and can evade metal detectors. As the law stands, a metal piece is required, but nothing is said about the permanence or the functionality of the metal. With the advent of technology, someone could easily insert a small metal pin to align with the law, remove it as necessary to pass through security, and still have a fully functioning weapon to carry onto a plane.

If that sounds alarmist, think again. In April, a man managed to enter the Knesset under just such a scenario to bring a plastic gun within feet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In May, libertarian-leaning Cody Wilson, a law student in Texas and founder of Defense Distributed, released a blueprint for a plastic gun that can be downloaded from the Internet. An admirer of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Wilson says the plastic gun is a “Wiki Weapon” that he calls “The Liberator.” He believes that the right to create and carry firearms is unrestricted. (The Pentagon scrubbed the blueprint from the Internet three days later, but not before 100,000 copies were downloaded.)

When the Undetectable Firearms Act passed in 1988, gun manufacturers had begun using lightweight polymer in handguns. Concern that terrorists could use these guns to evade metal detectors prompted the bill’s passage. Nobody then could imagine fully plastic weapons, but they’re here, and Rep. Israel began sounding the alarm bells a year ago after reading an article in the Science section of The New York Times. “It was still science fiction. There was no such thing as a plastic gun, but it was in the works,” says an aide. Israel discovered that the law regulating plastic weapons was set to expire, and last December he introduced the first version of his Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act. It went nowhere in the GOP-controlled House. In April, he introduced a second updated version, and Tuesday, a third version that, like the others, would go nowhere.

Israel supports the straight extension that passed with his name on it, along with Rep. Coble’s, but his aide says the congressman doesn’t think it goes far enough. Israel’s modernization bill would require that two pieces in a handgun and three in a rifle be made of permanent and detectable metal. “When we first started work on this issue, it was very much an uphill fight,” says the aide. “When we talked to members, they couldn’t conceptualize what this meant.” But with the expiration of the law and the media focus on the House bill, awareness mounted and that uphill fight got easier.

The issue now moves to the Senate, where Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) supports the extension but says he will introduce a measure to close the loophole as it now exists that allows plastic guns to proliferate without sufficient metal to trigger detection. The challenge for Schumer is both political and logistical. The Senate is on recess this week and returns Monday, December 9, the day the current legislation expires. To avoid letting the law lapse, the Senate needs to pass something on the same day senators get back. That means passing the House bill as is.

Gun control is such a fraught issue for Democrats that many would probably like Schumer to leave things where they are. Red-state Democrats facing reelection next year aren’t keen on another contentious gun battle after the failed effort to pass background checks early this year. President Obama put his heart and soul into that battle. This time he’s offering quiet support from the sidelines. “We support reauthorization of this commonsense gun safety legislation, but Congress should work to close any loopholes that make it possible to evade the law with new technologies,” says White House assistant press secretary Matt Lehrich.

The National Rifle Association isn’t weighing in publicly, but lawmakers in both chambers are mindful of the emotional power of any issue relating to gun rights. The reauthorization measure that passed Tuesday in the House did so with only a handful of the 435 members present. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) tweeted, “The plastic gun ban (Undetectable Firearms Act) just passed the house on voice vote with 10 reps present. I was the only no vote.” For most people, there’s no upside to being able to manufacture firearms in your basement that you can then carry onto a plane. It would be nice if laws could keep up with the times, but leaving well enough alone may well be the price of victory on guns for this Congress.