Let's All Calm Down About 3D Plastic Guns

Courtesy Defense Distributed

Should we light our hair on fire about plastic guns made with 3D printers? 

Too late for Senator Charles Schumer. The combustible New York Democrat is encouraging hysteria over the prospect of criminals using 3D printers to manufacture firearms, possibly to assassinate the president. “We’re facing a situation where anyone—a felon, a terrorist—can open a gun factory in their garage ,and the weapons they make will be undetectable,” Schumer said. “It’s stomach-churning.”

Courtesy Defense Distributed

What’s stomach-churning is the way that gun foes get their facts wrong, undercutting their cause and distracting from serious discussions about fighting crime.

3D printers are machines that can use digital designs to build a variety of devices out of thousands of layers of hard plastic. Pro-gun activists have been talking about using 3D technology to make a functioning firearm. This week, a libertarian-minded outfit in Texas called Defense Distributed reportedly test-fired such a weapon. Thus Schumer’s severe indigestion. The lawmaker said he will push legislation that would extend an existing ban on “undetectable” weapons to cover guns made via 3D printers.

A ban on undetectable guns will do no more harm, I suppose, than a ban on undetectable automobiles or spaceships, which could also be dangerous in the hands of a diabolical Marvel Comics supervillain. Schumer’s bill will not, however, have a practical effect on ordinary street crime, psychopathic mass shootings, hijackings, or political assassinations.

Here’s why: If you’ve got the skills, you can already make a gun in your basement, and there are less complicated ways to do it than using a $10,000 3D printer and computer set-up. Why would bad guys bother making comic book firearms when they can go online and order anything from a Glock 9 mm pistol to a Bushmaster military-style semiautomatic rifle with 30-round ammunition magazines?

Perhaps the evil doer wouldn’t want to leave a credit-card trail. Then he pays cash at a Main Street gun shop, a weekend gun show, or to the criminal down the block who sells black market firepower from the trunk of his car. Or the crook steals or borrows his gun.

The worst part of Schumer’s phony alarm about 3D-printer guns is that we’ve been down this path before, when gun-control activists tried to get Austrian-made Glock pistols banned from the U.S. in the late 1980s. The allegation then was that the innovative Glock, made mostly from industrial-strength plastic known as polymer, would defy airport security measures. As I recounted in a January 2011 Bloomberg Businessweek cover article, the would-be Glock banners:

Claimed that because it was mostly plastic, the pistol would be invisible to X-ray machines. “Only the barrel, slide, and one spring are metal,” the late Jack Anderson wrote in his syndicated column in January 1986. “Dismantled, it is frighteningly easy to smuggle past airport security.” Antigun groups mobilized, Congress held hearings, and the National Rifle Assn. rallied its troops. “The amazing thing was that nobody had ever heard of Glock before the Anderson column,” says Richard Feldman, a lawyer then working for the NRA. “‘Glock? What’s that? Oh, an Austrian gun, a plastic gun? Interesting. I’ve got to see one of those.’”

As the 17-round pistol became an object of curiosity and admiration among Second Amendment enthusiasts, the anti-Glock campaign fizzled. The Federal Aviation administration concluded that if screening personnel paid attention, they would be able to detect the pistol. “That was a big ‘oops’ moment,” says Richard M. Aborn, a former president of Handgun Control, now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “We made the classic mistake of failing to do our homework.”

Gun foes helped popularize the Glock with more speed and less expense than the Austrian company would ever have been capable of on its own. Today, the assault on the latest version of the plastic pistol makes no more sense. TSA scanners at airports detect shapes, not metal.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of mischievous libertarians making guns in their basements. On the other hand, if I were intent on mayhem, I would go with a proven manufacturer, like Glock. And if I were a lawmaker, I would focus on serious policies that might accelerate the reduction in crime rates that Senator Schumer’s hometown of New York has enjoyed for the past quarter-century.

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