Star Tribune

Opinion

Don't let the plastic gun ban expire

Congress should do what it takes to limit undetectable firearms.

Article by: Editorial Board , Star Tribune

Updated: December 2, 2013 - 6:13 PM

One of the most disappointing policy failures this year has been the inability of the U.S. Congress to approve meaningful gun control legislation. Even after multiple mass shootings, including the horrific murders of elementary schoolchildren in Connecticut last December, lawmakers failed to deliver stronger background checks.

Now Congress is facing a Dec. 9 deadline to extend a ban on plastic guns that can evade metal detectors. The ban will expire unless lawmakers vote to strengthen it or continue it as currently written.

This sensible gun control action should be a no-brainer. At the very least, the law should be renewed, as it has been in two previous bipartisan votes. As many law-enforcement officials recommend, Congress should amend the regulations to address 3-D printed guns.

Under the current law, manufacturers of 3-D guns are only required to make their firearms detectable in screening in some way. To comply, many simply include a nonfunctional piece of metal that can be easily removed.

Though the threat is growing, law-enforcement officials who support extending and strengthening the law are concerned that gun control politics could get in the way of reauthorizing the act. With less than a week to make it happen between holiday recesses, it appears the extension has stalled as lawmakers debate whether to amend it to include restrictions specifically aimed at 3-D printed weapons.

As Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, put it: “We’re on the clock, and as we know, this Congress doesn’t deal well with deadlines.”

The Undetectable Firearms Act was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 and was renewed in 1998 and again in 2003. Because plastic guns can easily slip past detection at airports and other safety checkpoints, the law bans firearms that can pass unnoticed through metal detectors.

When the law initially passed, sneaking undetectable plastic guns onto planes and into government buildings only happened in the movies. Today, 3-D printing technology is advanced and available enough to cheaply create functional plastic handguns.

The plastic weapons pose a real threat. Last month, a New York Times story reported that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recently assembled a plastic gun using designs found on the website of a Texas self-defense group. The gun was capable of firing multiple .380-caliber metal bullets that could “reach vital organs and perforate the skull,” according to the agency, which ordered the group to remove the designs from its website.

But as the Internet Age has taught us, putting something online is a lot easier that taking it off. Reportedly more than 100,000 downloads of the plans occurred before the feds stepped in.

This week, the House is expected to approve a 10-year extension of the plastic gun law. If the House can agree on an extension, at minimum the Senate should follow suit. Still, nothing can be assumed when it comes to gun control measures. The Senate recently put off a proposal to extend the law for a year because some Republicans worried that Democrats would try to tack on additional restrictions.

Although tens of thousands of Americans responsibly own guns, there are good reasons why some locations are off-limits. Metal detectors protect courthouses, airplanes and other locations where a plastic gun could do great harm in the wrong hands.

Renewing the law — even strengthening it — will not prevent plastic guns. But the strong penalties in place for those who illegally carry these types of weapons do serve as a deterrent, as former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan argued on this page.

The pending legislation should buck the trend in Washington. Even if the politics are difficult, Congress should extend the plastic weapons ban and more specifically address the threat posed by 3-D printing.

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