No fully plastic guns existed when Congress first passed the Undetectable Firearms Act in 1988. But grassroots efforts to create a 3D-printable plastic gun have alarmed one congressman enough to call for renewing the law before it expires in December 2013.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y) made his plea for renewing the federal ban on plastic guns just days after members of the "Wiki Weapon" project tested a 3D-printed gun part in a live-fire test. The " Wiki Weapon " members — organized under the name Defense Distributed — aim to begin testing fully 3D-printed guns by year's end.
"Congress passed a law banning plastic guns for two decades, when they were just a movie fantasy," Israel said. "With the advent of 3D printers these guns are suddenly a real possibility, but the law Congress passed is set to expire next year."
Gun enthusiasts have already begun experimenting with 3D printing's ability to turn countless digital designs into real object. The futuristic technology could allow anyone with a 3D printer to make replacement gun parts or eventually entire guns on demand. [ Video: A 3D Printer Of Your Own: When Will You Have One At Home? ]
The goal of making a 3D-printed gun remains challenging. The plastic used by many 3D printers has yet to prove tough enough to survive the recoil stresses of a firing gun — the latest Wiki Weapon test of an AR-15 assault rifle ended when the gun's lone 3D-printed plastic part came apart after six shots.
The 3D-printable part came from a digital design posted online by Michael Guslick, an engineer in Wisconsin. Guslick has successfully used the 3D printable gun receiver — a component holding the critical bolt, trigger and magazine parts of a gun — to fire off 200 rounds from a .22 pistol.
But a fully 3D-printable gun made of plastic would also need the strength to contain the force from each shot's gunpowder explosion that propels bullets forward. A plastic gun that could reliably do that has eluded the U.S. military and gun manufacturers for decades.
The renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act for another 10 years would not specifically target 3D printing or 3D-printable guns. But its ban on civilians making or owning guns that can sneak by metal detectors could force the Wiki Weapon project to adjust its plans for making a printable plastic gun. (Guns made for the CIA or U.S. military would be exempted from the ban.)
Wiki Weapon developers might potentially kill two birds with one stone by including metal gun parts that could provide the necessary weapon strength and also escape the federal ban on undetectable guns. That would add a potential challenge on the 3D printing side, because 3D printers typically only make objects from a single material such as either plastic or metal.
But Israel's comments in a news release also hinted at targeting 3D-printable guns directly — especially because of the technology's potential to make guns more readily available.
"We should act now to give law enforcement authorities the power to stop the development of these weapons before they are as easy to come by as a Google search," Israel said.