The Battle Over Invisible Guns

It was exciting-the news about banning invisible guns.  Of course they are only invisible when they’re going through machines meant to detect them.  They are not invisible if they are used to shoot people.  But what made it especially exciting was that the news came just as we all thought Congress was not going to do anything between now and the end of the year.  It was probably silly of us to think that since everyone knows people in Congress were elected to do something even though the folks elected sometimes have trouble deciding what it is.

Thus it was that no sooner did the Senate get back to Washington after its Thanksgiving vacation, with citizens hoping it would do something constructive during the last few days it was in Washington, than it became known that it intended to take advantage of procedural rules in order to postpone the inevitable. Republican senators acted to slow down the approval of 76 nominations made by the president. Because of the change in the senate procedural rules that eliminate the filibuster the nominees are guaranteed eventual approval.  By stalling the approval Republican senators give the impression that they are being busy even though all they are in fact doing is delaying the inevitable.  They were not, however, completely inactive.  They extended one significant piece of legislation. It pertained to guns.

As followers of such things know, everyone with a computer and a half way decent 3_D printer can make a perfectly useable gun.  The gun can be made entirely out of plastic thus enabling its owner to go around carrying the owner’s 2d amendment friend without fear of detection, secure in the knowledge that no matter what problems are encountered, the invisible friend will help its owner ward off evil.

To prove that they were not incapable of taking any significant action, the Senate followed the lead of the House and extended for 10 years the Undetectable Firearms Act that was passed in 1988 as a very small part of 18 USC Sec. 922.  The Act banned the sale or possession of firearms that, to use layman’s terms, do not look like guns, and, in addition, do not contain enough metal to be detectable by walk through metal detectors or x-ray machines used at airports.  (How much metal is required is established by something called a “security exemplar” that the statute says will be fabricated at the direction of the Attorney General and “constructed of . . . 3.7 ounces of material type 17-4 PH stainless steel in a shape resembling a handgun.”)

Some readers are probably wondering how such a draconian piece of legislation could be enacted in the face of what must surely have been opposition from the NRA.  The answer is that there was no opposition to the extension of the act by the NRA. That’s because the Act says it is OK to make an invisible gun so long as the manufacturer includes as part of the invisible gun, a metal strip so that it is not invisible if it goes through an ex-ray machine or a metal detector with the metal strip attached.  What the law doesn’t prohibit, however, is designing the gun so the metal strip can be removed when the gun goes through a metal detector.  By removing the metal strip the gun is once again invisible.  (Going so easily from visible to invisible is the sort of thing that would have appealed to people who wrote fairy tales many years ago.)

Senator Charles Schumer doesn’t like for people to walk around carrying lethal weapons that no one can see and nothing can detect.  For that reason he wanted the act to require that 3-D printed guns include metal components that could not be removed.  His thinking was that if the metal could not be removed then the gun would no longer be invisible.  The Senator could not persuade his colleagues and that provision was not included in the extension of the Act.

In a statement before Senator Schumer’s amendment was voted on the NRA said:  “We would like to make our position clear.  The NRA strongly opposes ANY expansion of the Undetectable Firearms Act . . .. The NRA has been working for months to thwart expansion of the UFA by Senator Chuck Schumer and others.”  The NRA’s opposition to making invisible guns visible finds support in the 2d Amendment to the United States Constitution as understood by enough members of the U.S. Supreme Court to make their understanding the law of the land.  There is nothing in that amendment that suggests that citizens should not be permitted to arm themselves with invisible guns. Of course if someone were to shoot down an airplane with an invisible gun, one can be fairly confident Congress would reexamine the question to show how seriously it takes tragedies like the Newtown School shooting or our hypothetical downing of an airplane.  It would not, of course, make any changes to the law.  That’s because of the NRA and the 2d Amendment, the one misguided and the other misunderstood.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.


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