A federal law banning firearms that cannot be detected by walk-through metal detectors expires in less than a month, but Congress has yet to act despite the rise of new technologies that can produce "3-D" plastic guns.
A bill introduced this summer by Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Bill Nelson of Florida has shown no sign of moving toward passage, and the status of a House bill that revamps the Undetectable Firearms Act is unclear.
Meantime, government sources say that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, is preparing to introduce a bill without a contentious provision in the Schumer-Nelson bill that bans plastic magazines. A committee spokeswoman declined to comment.
Officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Wednesday that they have been asked to brief members of Congress on the evolving technology of homemade firearms, made with parts from high-tech industrial printers, but they declined to identify specific lawmakers or comment on their input.
"ATF is trying to educate the public [about 3-D plastic guns]," said Earl Griffith, chief of the Firearms Technology Branch. "If the current law expires, it would become legal to possess undetectable firearms just like any other handgun."
Added an ATF spokesperson, "We don't make the laws. Under the old law, there's a deterrent to owning a [3-D plastic gun], but with no law, it's not illegal. The ball is in Congress' court."
Mr. Schumer's office did not respond to calls for comment. A Justice Department spokesperson said the agency had not addressed any legislation, "but that does not mean we won't." The Homeland Security Department has labeled 3-D plastic guns a serious threat to public safety.
At a news briefing Wednesday, Mr. Griffith showed a video of a single-shot 3-D plastic gun firing a bullet and exploding, and compared it to a newer model, which stayed intact even after ATF agents reloaded and fired it eight times.
Plastics were first used to manufacture gun parts in 1970, although commercial guns still contained metal slides, barrels, magazines and other small parts that would show up on a metal detector. The 1998 Undetectable Firearms Act was last renewed in 2003. Since then, the use of plastic has proliferated, ATF officials said, with a new design called the "Liberator," which has all plastic parts except for a firing pin and a steel block inserted into the receiver.
Computer printer technology is available on the Internet for less than $1,000, officials said, and can produce a plastic .380 caliber single-shot gun in 10 hours at a cost of $80 in materials. They cautioned that the firing pin on such a gun resembles a roof nail and could be removed and concealed in the sole of a shoe, and that the metal block is both removable and non-functional. They said their big concern is an assassin or terrorist looking to smuggle a firearm into a courthouse, sporting event or airport.
Some question the utility of the law that is due to expire, on Dec. 10, or even a new one, given that the government has not connected any shootings to 3-D plastic guns, is not currently investigating any such shootings, and cannot say how many of the plastic guns exist.
"Are they looking to control the technology or the final product?" asked professor Robert Cottrol, a specialist in criminal law and criminology at George Washington University School of Law. "If you don't control the technology, then you'll always have clandestine printed guns that are usable for some purpose. It's hard to say whether it is a real threat or a bogus threat that drives the overall gun debate."
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