On 3D Guns, Congress Proves Yet Again How Scared It is of the Gun Lobby

Human Rights

On Monday, the Senate joined the House in passing the most significant piece of gun regulation legislation to happen in a decade: The Undetectable Firearms Act. Though the law has to do with weapons that are designed to slip past security systems, one would be forgiven for thinking that "undetectable" describes the legislation and not the guns themselves.

The law will do very little, indeed probably nothing, about everyday Americans' access to everyday weapons; it will do even less about the ability of the truly motivated criminal to develop weapons even more stealthy than the ones currently in existence.

It is really just a 10-year extension of a 1988 law, written before functioning plastic guns were even available. As such, the National Rifle Association (NRA) didn't even bother to lobby against it then. Today, with plastic guns an experimental novelty, the NRA maintained a neutral position, albeit one backed by a threat:

The NRA strongly opposes ANY expansion of the Undetectable Firearms Act, including applying the UFA to magazines, gun parts, or the development of new technologies.

The law Congress approves simply requires that plastic weapons, including ones made from 3D printing, contain metal. This is helpful for identifying people who carry plastic weapons that are intended to be detected. But the 3D printing technology that the NRA referred to can be used to create a gun that slips through the old law's loopholes; its "detectability" would consist only of a removable metal pin, something that could easily be discarded.

While some Democrats pushed for additional provisions against this developing 3D printing threat, both houses passed the unchanged version of the bill via procedures (unanimous consent in the Senate and voice vote in the House) that allowed lawmakers to escape even having their individual votes recorded. With the anniversary of Newtown fast approaching, one can hardly blame their reluctance to draw attention to just how little has been done in its wake.

Second Amendment enthusiasts are already on shaky ground when they make appeals to the intent of our Founding Fathers – note the distinct lack of well-regulated militias among private gun owners – but on the issue of 3D printed guns their argument becomes farcical: Jefferson was an imaginative inventor and an open-minded man of science, but I'm pretty sure if presented with the technology used to make guns out of thin air, he wouldn't think about its potential to provide weapons to revolutionaries, he would think it was magic.

For that matter, he might also consider flying metal ships carrying hundreds of passengers thousands of miles to be magic, but I have little doubt that he would understand the principle of hijacking such fantastic contraptions and smashing them into civilian targets. It's one thing to understand, as Jefferson did, that liberty demands a watchful and prepared populace; it's quite another to turn a blind eye to fatal technology whose purpose is untethered to self-protection or even sport. The only reason to want a gun that's undetectable by security measures is to threaten security.

This is so obvious that the NRA wisely refrained from making a proactive argument on behalf of owning plastic guns as we know them today. In encouraging lawmakers to drop a discussion of 3D printed weapons, the NRA has tried to make sure they won't need to take a side in that losing debate for another 10 years, even if scientific advances in arms manufacturing continue to leapfrog ahead of law-enforcement's ability to protect against them. One argument against extending the undetectable weapons ban to 3D printed guns is that they will be so expensive and so difficult to create, there's no point in outlawing them. It seems to me that anyone willing to go through all that trouble to get their hands on an undetectable weapons are the exact people you don't want to have them.

There's one possible way that we will see Congress take up the issue of regulating weapons created by 3D printing, and that's if a lot of people die because of one. I'd say that such a tragedy would certainly mean Congress would do something about those weapons, but obviously that's not the case. The anniversary of Newtown this week simply marks the most recent milestone we have flown by.

After the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981, it took over a decade for the Brady Bill to go from an obvious reaction to widespread availability handguns into codified law; in that time period there were 15additional high-profile killings where 70 more people died. Handguns were used in nine of them. In fact, the number of all gun deaths started to rise precipitously beginning in 1986 and kept going up until 1994, when it began a decline that has continued until today, when gun homicides are down almost half from their peak. Though many credit the 1994 assault weapons ban for reducing that number, the vast majority of all US gun homicides have always been due to handguns.

These next figures are going to become familiar in the next few days: Since Newtown, 194 children have been shot and killed. There have been over 16 mass shootings. Over 32,000 have died from gunshot wounds over all and over 11,000 deaths reported as homicides.

One one level, the Undetectable Firearms Act has nothing to do with Newtown, but that's exactly the point. The vote and the law reveal just how devastatingly fleeting our grief seems to be. We are a resilient people, it's one of Americans' best qualities, but that resilience seems to come with a pull toward the comfort of the status quo rather than a desire to create something even better.

I suspect that's because most Americans don't realize just how bad the status quo is.

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