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Editorial: Act now on plastic guns

If the printable-gun genie isn’t already out of the bottle, there seems little doubt that at some point, sooner or later, it will be. Governments need to restrain it as much as possible to give society a way to prepare for, and mitigate, the damage that is likely to come.

The issue is plastic guns that can be made using 3D printers. They are undetectable and untraceable. They are also often unstable and short-lived, though both could change as technology does.

Instructions have already been uploaded to the internet which, if it doesn’t make a judge’s recent injunction moot, does the next closest thing. Estimates as of Wednesday were that they had already been downloaded several thousand times.

The worry is not merely the proliferation of weapons – which is cause enough – but that felons, domestic abusers and others who should be nowhere near a gun will be able to arm themselves. It’s a legitimate concern.

There are built-in restraints, at least for the moment. The 3D printers needed to create the weapons are not cheap. They start around $5,000 and can go higher than half-million dollars. That will act as a restraint on their production.

And the guns, themselves, appear to be fragile. As USA Today reported, an early design printed by federal agents shattered after one shot. A second gun, made from a higher grade resin, remained intact. Even then, the guns normally last only a few rounds before they fall apart. They hold only a bullet or two and must be manually reloaded. They tend not to be accurate.

But those factors are all but certain to change as technology does. Anyone who remembers the cost and clunkiness of early computers knows how quality improves even as prices fall change. The same will happen with these guns, but with consequences that can be catastrophic.

The guns can be produced without serial numbers and their owners can avoid registration laws. Because they have no metal parts, they can be undetectable. The risks are inherent and obvious. They must be dealt with now, before these weapons can become commonplace.

Constitutional issues clearly come into play, including a First Amendment right of free speech and the Second Amendment right to firearms. But all rights have limits and even some conservatives – including the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia – acknowledged that gun control laws can be constitutional.

As to the First Amendment, freedom of speech doesn’t allow someone to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater and the right to a free press doesn’t allow the publication of child pornography. It’s a fair argument that production of guns that can’t be detected or traced and put lives at risk – including those of elected officials – are the kiddie porn of the gun culture. Society needs to respond while it can.

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