Last week, Rep. Steve Israel introduced a bill designed to regulate firearms that cannot be found by metal detectors. The bill makes a passing reference the 3D printing, which is fine. But the rhetoric that Rep. Israel is using to promote the bill is both muddled and overblown, and focuses almost exclusively on 3D printing. This is a problem.
As part of the bill introduction process, Rep. Israel circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter to his fellow Members of Congress asking them to co-sponsor the legislation. The title of the letter? “Co-Sponsor Legislation to Ban 3D Printed Guns”
In the letter, he points to a CNN article about 3D printed guns as one that “describes the issue and intent of my legislation.” Later, he dramatically asks “what good will gun safety laws do if guns and gun parts can be printed in a basement using plans found online?”
This is the worst kind of fear mongering. While 3D printed guns may get headlines, the details are bit less salacious. That’s part of the reason that the ATF – the government agency tasked with overseeing firearms – is monitoring them but is not overly concerned.
What is Driving the Bill?
And what is Rep. Israel actually concerned about? What motivated him to act now? It can be hard to say. If it is making guns at home, that ship sailed long ago. The ATF website itself assures people that they can make guns at home and it is probably safe to assume that people have been doing so since before the United States was the United States.
What about the idea of downloading guns? Again, nothing particularly new here. Although the group Defense Distributed has gotten a great deal of attention lately, they are largely building off the work of a preexisting community. The folks over at CNCguns have made plans available since at least 2007 that could be used in a CNC mill – that means they could be used to download and make metal guns at home.
But Rep. Israel’s letter talks briefly about plastic guns that could be smuggled through metal detectors. Should we be concerned about those? Public Knowledge is not involved in gun policy, so I will leave that decision up to you. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you are concerned about plastic guns being smuggled through metal detectors. There are plenty of ways to make plastic guns, many of which can be done at home (and have existed for some time). Why focus on 3D printing specifically? Consider this question another way: if someone sneaks a gun into an airport, is the first thing you think to yourself “But what technology did he use to construct the gun? Because I’m only worried if he made it with a 3D printer.”?
Confused by Hype
Rep. Israel seems to be feeding, and at the same time confused by, the hype surrounding 3D printed guns. In many cases, this hype tends to ignore the distinction between the 3D printers that are becoming available to people at home and 3D printers that have been available to companies for decades. Defense Distributed appears to have successfully created prototypes, but those prototypes have been printed on machines costing tens of thousands of dollars. If you have 20 or 30 thousand dollars to spend, there are plenty of ways to set up a home gun factory. A 3D printer is far from your best option. Today, from a practical standpoint, the idea of everyday people downloading and printing their own guns at home on a 3D printer is just– to use Rep. Israel’s word – “science fiction.”
The Actual Bill and Why Words Matter
After reading Rep. Israel’s letter, actually reading the legislation may come as a shock. The legislation has almost nothing to do with 3D printing and everything to do with undetectable firearms. We should know – we worked with his office to make sure that the law did not unnecessarily demonize 3D printing (or any other general purpose maker technology). And if the language in the law is OK, why are we worried?
Because framing and words matter, especially in regards to new technology. With this letter, Rep. Israel is essentially telling his colleagues “when you think 3D printing, think dangerous weapons.” For many Members this letter will be their first contact with 3D printing, and they will assume that firearms are all that it is good for. That initial connection may be a step towards reactionary, poorly considered regulation of 3D printing.
Of course, we are doing our best to make sure that does not happen. In addition to working with Members like Rep. Israel, we are introducing Congress to 3D printing on more positive terms. On April 24th we are setting up shop in Congress with over 20 companies and organizations who will show Members and staff the possibilities of 3D printing if it is not stifled. Please join us to see for yourself what 3D printing is really good for.
This is the letter circulated by Rep. Israel:
Co-Sponsor Legislation to Ban 3D Printed Guns
From: The Honorable Steve Israel
Cosponsor the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act
I urge you to co-sponsor legislation I introduced today to give law enforcement the tools they need to protect American families from firearms and gun components that come straight off a 3D printer. My legislation would extend and update the ban on guns and gun parts that cannot be detected by metal detectors or x-ray machines, entitled the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act. The original Undetectable Firearms Act was passed in 1988 when a plastic gun was science fiction, and now that technology has advanced to a point where these guns are being developed to fire bullets, Congress must act to extend this ban. Below I have included a recent CNN piece that describes the issue and intent of my legislation.
Defense Distributed, a group based in Austin, Texas, has been working since late last year towards a single goal: using a 3-dimensional printer to manufacture a plastic firearm. So far the group has been successful in manufacturing a fully plastic, fully functional lower receiver for an AR-15, the same gun used in the Sandy Hook shooting, as well as high capacity magazines for the AR-15 and AK-47. Recently, the group’s founder has stated that they will be able to produce a working 3D printed gun by the end of April. These developments beg the question- what good will gun safety laws do if guns and gun parts can be printed in a basement using plans found online?
The Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act would update current law and extend key provisions to include both lower receivers and magazines printed in plastic by individuals. The legislation specifically targets individuals who produce plastic gun components and magazines, while exempting legitimate manufacturers. Extending this ban is necessary to give law enforcement the tools they need to keep plastic guns that can slip through security lines off of our streets.
Member of Congress
The letter also included a link to and the full text of this article.