Last month the Trump administration cleared online gun group Defense Distributed to begin offering to the public downloadable instructions for undetectable, untraceable 3D-printed guns starting at midnight on Aug. 1.
Despite widespread outcry, Congress failed to halt the downloads. Florida senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, scrambled to pass a last-minute ban, but Sen. Mike Lee — a Utah Republican — blocked Nelson's effort.
Compare the inaction with the last time an upstart company tried to distribute undetectable guns. In 1987, Florida firm Red Eye Arms mentioned that it might develop a plastic gun for the civilian market.
Within a year, lawmakers passed the Undetectable Firearms Act, which requires all firearms sold in the United States to contain some metal components so that, in theory, they show up on metal detectors.
To the 100th Congress, the mere idea of plastic guns was enough to compel swift legislative action. Thirty years later, the 115th Congress faced actual rather than theoretical plastic guns … and did nothing.
It's not hard to explain the difference. "The simple answer is that Democrats had strong control of Congress back then and the Republicans are in charge today," John Donohue, an expert on gun laws at Stanford University, told The Daily Beast. "The gun lobby has complete control over Republican politicians."
Winter Park, Florida-based Red Eye Arms, which is no longer in business, was never a very serious enterprise. In late 1987 the tiny company — founded by gunsmith David Byron and his principal backer John Floren, a funeral-home operator — got the U.S. Army to agree to at least look at a plastic grenade launcher the company said it was developing.
The grenade-launcher scheme went nowhere. But taking advantage of the resulting press coverage, Red Eye Arms pivoted to a new idea —— a lightweight, durable, nearly-recoilless plastic handgun for the civilian market. "I'm convinced that, ultimately, we'll replace every weapon on Earth," Red Eye vice president Dwight Brunoehler told Inc. magazine.
(After FBI agents arrested Brunoehler and 13 others for allegedly running long-term scams that convinced some 20,000 investors to sink more than $30 million into essentially fake companies promising lucrative returns, he sued the agents for, he claimed, arresting him without probable cause. A federal judge threw out that suit and, in July, another judge rejected Brunhoehler's appeal.)
Like the grenade launcher, Red Eye's plastic-gun scheme went nowhere. The technology just wasn't up to snuff. "I have seen proposals, spiels and graphics," Ed Ezell, a firearms expert at the Smithsonian Institution, told The Los Angeles Times. "I have yet to see them produce any hardware. I don't think they've gone anywhere with this except around the promotion circuit."
Democrats in Congress took no chances. Ohio senator Howard Metzenbaum and Rep. William Hughes of New Jersey sponsored a bill that would require guns to include at least 3.7 ounces of metal — enough to set off metal detectors. The Undetectable Firearms Act passed in October 1988. Pres. Ronald Reagan signed it into law that November.
Lawmakers knew they were banning what was, at the time, future technology. "We're legislating against something that doesn't exist," H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Sen. Jim McClure, an Idaho Republican, told Inc.
But Greg Eyring from the congressional Office of Technology Assessment told The Los Angeles Times that, with or without Red Eye, plastic guns were "inevitable."
The 1988 law remains in effect. Legal 3D-printed gun designs include metal firing pins and other small metal components in order to comply with the law, although critics warn that carriers can easily remove these parts in order to sneak plastic weapons past metal detectors.
The Undetectable Firearms Act doesn’t address 3D-printed guns' lack of traceable serial numbers or the ability of makers to skirt background checks. In 1988, forward-thinking lawmakers anticipated plastic guns becoming a problem. But they didn't anticipate the 3D-printing technology that would turn the concept of plastic guns into reality.
Nor, apparently, did they foresee a Republican administration giving the go-ahead for a company to make plastic guns accessible to the public. And a Republican Congress doing nothing to stop it.
As the Aug. 1 start of legal gun-downloads approached, Democratic attorneys general from eight states sued. A federal judge in Seattle quickly issued an injunction against Defense Distributed ahead of an Aug. 10 hearing that could decide the future of untraceable, undetectable guns.
But as long as Republicans hold at least one chamber in Congress, neither a new ban on 3D-printed guns nor an expansion of the 1988 law seems likely.
The Obama administration had effectively blocked 3D-printed guns. The Trump Justice Department, by contrast, "really messed up on this," Donohue told The Daily Beast. "Congress could presumably immediately implement the Obama plan and prevent this lunacy. Federal action is always best, but that just may not be possible here."