Explaining the Senate's 3D-printed gun ruling

The U.S. Senate voted in favor of the renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 last night, with the intention of preventing an increase in the production of plastic, 3D-printed guns.

However, a last-minute dispute over the language used in the bill has led to some confusion. Here's what happened:

On Dec. 3, the House of Representatives voted in favor of the bill, officially titled "To extend the Undetectable Firearms Act for 10 years," one day after it was introduced. The bill was a straightforward renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, without any modifications.

When the bill reached the senate, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, a long-time gun control advocate who has publicly argued against 3D-printed guns, pushed for modifications to the bill. As it stood, the Undetectable Firearms Act only required manufacturers to include one metal piece on the gun so it could be detected by metal detectors, making weapons made entirely out of plastic illegal. However, no part of the law required that metal piece to be permanent, making 3D-printed plastic guns with removable metal pieces legal. In May, Defense Distributed made headlines after firing the first 3D-printed gun, dubbed The Liberator. That gun featured one metal component a standard carpenter's nail used for the firing pin that made it legal by that law.

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The concern, as expressed by Sen. Schumer and House Rep. Steve Israel from New York, is that the metal piece could be removed so the plastic gun could pass through a metal detector unnoticed. Once re-attached, the gun would be legal again.

In the end, though, their request to mandate attaching a permanent piece of metal onto plastic weapons was never added to the bill. The  Senate passed the same bill that the House did.

Currently, 3D-printed guns require expensive hardware and extensive knowledge of the technology. Even so, the finished product is prone to breaking when fired. The Liberator, when first fired by Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson, broke after only three shots.

Gun control advocates are worried about the future of the technology. Gartner forecasts the market for 3D printers to grow from $288 million in 2012 to $5.7 billion by 2017 "as consumer 3D printing hype accelerates 3D printer purchases by enterprises worldwide."

Wilson has said that the design files for The Liberator were downloaded more than 100,000 times before the U.S. State Department confiscated them in May. Since then, the files have made their way to P2P file-sharing service The Pirate Bay, where some have estimated the files have been downloaded more than 1 million times. Copycats have emerged as well, such as The Grizzly 3D-printed rifle, whose owner claims to have fired 14 shots before the barrel suffered a crack.

Prior to yesterday's ruling, the Undetectable Firearms Act was set to expire at the end of the month.

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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