Printed plastic guns a growing worry for law enforcement

Federal law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned about the public-safety threats posed by plastic handguns made with 3-D -

printers because they can potentially slip past metal detectors and are capable of firing lethal rounds. At a media briefing Wednesday, senior officials of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said they had built and tested the Liberator, a printed handgun designed by Defense Distributed, a Texas organization. Cody Wilson, its co-founder, is a former law student leading a campaign for do-it-yourself firearms. In one test, ATF officials fired eight rounds from the Liberator. Other tests and simulations showed that the weapon was capable of firing with enough power to injure vital organs.

The Liberator’s designs were downloaded more than 100,000 times in just two days before federal officials demanded their removal in May. The risk, officials said, is not that street criminals will use printed weapons in their day-to-day operations. Rather, ATF officials are concerned about individuals slipping plastic guns past metal detectors and into schools, sporting events or government offices. Depending on the sensitivity of a metal detector, a bullet might not be enough to set it off. Only X-ray machines could spot the handgun itself, and in many public places they aren’t available.

“There are ways that this can potentially create a huge problem for the American public,” said Richard Marianos, an assistant ATF director. The ATF’s public education push comes as a law banning undetectable firearms is set to expire early next month. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) is pushing a bill to reauthorize and update the law to account for 3-D printing technology. ATF officials, he said, have consulted on his measure, but it’s stuck in committee and its prospects appear dim. There is a similar effort in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the world of printed guns is evolving rapidly.