Gun rights advocates are calling it the beginning of the end of gun control.
They’re celebrating. But the vast majority of Americans who support background checks for anyone seeking a gun should be alarmed.
The Trump administration recently settled a lawsuit filed by Cody Wilson, the former University of Texas law school student who earned national media attention in 2013 for fabricating a working handgun out of plastic using a 3-D printer. The Obama administration had ordered Wilson to take those gun plans off the Internet, but the settlement allows Wilson to post free, downloadable plans for that gun and other do-it-yourself firearms online, a click away from anyone who wishes to build his or her own gun.
No background check involved.
The Trump administration’s wrong-headed capitulation to the gun lobby defies justification as the country grasps for ways to make the public safer from mass shootings and gun violence. Meeting with survivors of the Parkland High School mass shooting in February that killed 17 and injured 17 others, President Donald Trump vowed, “we’re going to be very strong on background checks.” After another gunman opened fire in May at Santa Fe High School, killing 10 and injuring 13 others, Trump pledged “to keep weapons out of the hands of those who pose a threat to themselves and to others.”
All empty promises, if anyone can bypass background checks by building a gun with free plans on the Internet and easy-to-use machinery. Worse, it’s easier than ever for someone to create an all-plastic gun, in violation of the law, to bypass the metal detectors that were meant to keep shooters out.
This technology also involves more durable metal firearms, not just plastic ones. Wilson’s North Austin firm, Defense Distributed, raised money for its legal battle by selling a contraption called the Ghost Gunner, a computer-controlled milling machine about the size of a desktop computer unit that allows people to build their own untraceable handgun or AR-15-style rifle using metal parts. The $1,675 machine, designed so even a novice can use it, creates the body of the gun. The remaining components can be purchased online without a background check.
Federal law allows hobbyists to build their own guns for personal use. But the landscape has changed with 3-D printers, precise digital plans, and devices like the Ghost Gunner that allow anyone with a computer and a credit card to become a gun manufacturer.
Before the next tragic mass shooting, perhaps at the end of a homemade gun’s barrel, we urge Congress to apply common-sense requirements to these DIY weapons.
People should be required to clear a firearm background check before they can buy a device like the Ghost Gunner or download the computer coding to create a gun with a 3-D printer. Congress should create serious fines to deter would-be offenders and ensure the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has the resources needed to enforce such rules.
We don’t buy the argument that the computer coding to build a gun with a 3-D printer is somehow protected speech under the First Amendment, as Wilson’s lawsuit argued. This coding adds nothing to public discourse. It serves only as a tool to build a gun, a device that the U.S. Supreme Court has said may be subjected to reasonable regulations to protect the public.
Congress should also address the fact that homemade guns do not have serial numbers, which undermines law enforcement officers’ efforts to trace the origin of guns used in crimes. One possibility: Require people to bring in each homemade gun to receive a serial number. Another possibility: Assign a gunmaker ID number to each person who clears the background check for gun-making devices or files, then require they stamp that ID number on every gun they produce.
Finally, Congress should revisit the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which banned all-plastic guns at a time when such devices didn’t yet exist. The law is overdue for an update that addresses plastic guns fashioned by 3-D printers, providing specific guidance on the amount of metal and other characteristics that must be included, so the guns can’t slip through screening devices. It should also be updated with significant penalties for violators.
These common-sense measures would not infringe on anyone’s Second Amendment rights. They simply extend existing public safety measures to a new form of gun-making technology.
We recognize that any bill regulating guns faces an uphill climb in a Republican-controlled Congress that seems beholden to the National Rifle Association. But lawmakers should look to their constituents: Polls have consistently shown more than 80 percent of Americans support background checks for all gun purchases. So do nearly three-quarters of NRA members. And it wasn’t that long ago that thousands of students across the country engaged in walk-outs demanding stronger gun safety laws.
Defense Distributed says it will post shareable 3-D printer files on its website for various guns on Aug. 1, ushering in what the firm calls “the age of the downloadable gun.”
Congress has no excuse for inaction. Don’t make promises after the next tragedy to close the loopholes we can already see.