How to Regulate 3-D Printed Guns

There are steps Congress can take to (sort of) stay ahead of the gun curve.

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A 3-D printer similar to this one was used to create the world's first 3-D printed gun.

I spent considerable time today wading through Thomas Jefferson's letters in an attempt to discern what he would say about the latest complexity to hit the gun control debate: the 3-D printing of guns.

Earlier this week Forbes published an article "Meet 'The Liberator': Test Firing the World's First Fully 3-d Printed Gun." The piece discussed Cody Wilson and his non-profit Defense Distribution. Wilson, a self-described radical libertarian and anarchist, fabricated the gun with a sophisticated 3-D printer and published its blueprints on his website. Over 100,000 people downloaded the document before the State Department forced him to remove it.

Jefferson's writings don't provide much guidance. On the one hand, he promoted 2nd Amendment rights and encouraged technological innovation with limited government regulation. But on the other, he argued that inventors should be held accountable when their creations bring about unexpected dangers.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

The Liberator represents the latest example of the unexpected dangers of digital technology: dangers that range from domestic drone usage and abuses of data privacy to smart-phone geo-tracking and cyberwarfare. There's no substantive legislative framework to deal with these issues; just a hodge-podge of vague laws that focus on small parts of the larger problem.

The regulation of 3-D printed guns ostensibly falls under the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, a law that makes the manufacture, distribution and importation of guns undetectable by x-ray equipment a federal offense. Congress renewed the act in 2003, but it will expire at the end of this year.

Senator Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has called for its renewal, and a bill modernizing the law has been circulating through the House for the past several months. But neither of these proposals is likely to materialize into law. Last month's failed attempt by the Senate to pass universal background checks died on the vine, and President Obama's larger push to revamp gun control laws has lost steam.

[See Photos: Guns in America]

However, Congress should show courage and, at the very least, renew this act. Allowing individuals to 3-D print guns represents a public safety hazard and a national security issue. The process could exacerbate the illegal gun trade, give unlawful individuals access to weapons, and provide terrorists with an undetectable means to threaten the safety of air travelers. We should not have to wait until someone uses a weapon of this kind to commit a crime with such high-visibility as the Boston Marathon bombing or the Aurora shooting.

Congress should also have a larger conversation about developing a comprehensive public policy that reasonably regulates the dark side of digital technology. This conversation may very well determine that the digital world is far too large and complex to regulate, but it's certainly a discussion that should be had.

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