3D printing is driving innovation across all industries—NASA has printed rocket parts from metal alloys, MIT engineers are creating 3D-printed vaccines, and medical researchers are developing 3D printed organs for transplant. 3D printers can now be found in offices, schools, and homes across the country. They range in capability, but their overall cost is decreasing rapidly, opening new frontiers in science, engineering, and, disturbingly, violence.
In 2013, the first known 3D-printed plastic gun was successfully built and tested. The creator shared the blueprints online, so anyone could download and replicate them. Just a few days later, recognizing the potential threat of terrorists and criminals producing weapons from the design, the US State Department forced the removal of the plans based on laws preventing international arms trafficking. Despite these previously outlined concerns, the Trump administration withdrew the State Department’s legal challenge to mass distribution of the gun design. Today, the only obstacles to the mass distribution of the designs for 3D-printed guns are the federal legal challenges filed by Attorney General Lisa Madigan and her counterparts across the country.
While the fight to limit the distribution of these designs is worthwhile to limit their proliferation, they have already been downloaded and recirculated thousands of times. Ultimately, attempts to curb access to this method of producing weapons will be insufficient to protect public safety. Instead, both federal and state governments must contend with the frightening possibilities of this new technology by ensuring that the law keeps pace with the development of firearms and that dangerous weapons do not slip through legal loopholes.
Plastic, homemade guns present a unique threat to American public safety. For starters, all-plastic weapons could be ferreted through metal detectors undiscovered. In addition, tracking the use of such firearms in illegal activity is nearly impossible without a serial number. Home-made and untraceable weapons also allow terrorists, domestic abusers, and other violent criminals legally barred from having guns to acquire them. This threat will only grow over time as the designs for plastic weapons grow more sophisticated, and the price for their production decreases.
That is why the federal government has taken steps to ban the production and sale of undetectable weapons. Under the Undetectable Fire Arms Act, all guns must be detectable by walk-through metal scanning machines. However, loopholes remain that could be exploited by dangerous criminals. While weapons are required to contain enough metal to alert security systems, the way these metal parts are included is not specified. For example, makers of plastic and 3D-printed guns can simply add a nonessential metal component which could be easily removed by anyone seeking to evade detection—all while still allowing the gun to fire. This allows gunmakers to follow the letter of the law while producing a weapon that could be carried undetected through security at a school, office, or government building.
At the federal level, some of my colleagues and I are already fighting for legislation to close this and other loopholes that allow undetectable firearms to remain in our communities, but Illinois can’t afford to wait for Congress to act. To guarantee the safety of our citizens, we need to ban the possession of 3D-printed all-plastic guns by mandating at the state level that all major, essential components of firearms are detectable by metal detectors. Furthermore, we must ensure that all firearms and their components are detectable by millimeter wave scanners, the same technology currently used to screen passengers at airports.
Though 3D-printed guns are only one of the challenges we face in the battle against gun violence, they are an emerging one which we are in a position to contain now, before a market takes root. By banning undetectable firearms, we can greatly limit the threat posed by such weapons as we continue to combat the larger scourge of gun violence across America, and here in Illinois.