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Limits on untraceable firearms clears Washington state Legislature

The proposal to ban undetectable guns and place limits on untraceable guns in Washington state follows a prominent federal case in Texas.
Credit: AP
(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The Washington state Legislature on Tuesday approved new limits on untraceable, undetectable firearms, including the 3D-printed guns at the center of a high-profile federal case.

The proposal would ban outright undetectable guns and would limit — but not ban — untraceable guns.

The Washington proposal follows a prominent 2018 federal case that saw a Texas company, Defense Distributed, blocked from posting free plans online that could be used to print plastic guns on home 3D printers. Law enforcement officials worried such guns could be smuggled into secure areas or printed by felons.

The 2018 order was limited, however, blocking the company from giving the plans away but not from selling them via mail or email, which representatives said the company has continued to do, with thousands of orders.

Washington attorney general Bob Ferguson led the group of 19 states whose legal challenge resulted in the block and also requested Tuesday's bill.

"We cannot allow felons and other dangerous individuals to get around our state's background check requirements by printing untraceable, undetectable 3D-printed guns," Ferguson said in a release.

Undetectable guns are the main focus of the bill, which adds a broad prohibition on any gun that doesn't have enough metal in it to trigger common airport scanners.

Specifically outlawed would be any firearm that doesn't contain at least 3.7 ounces of steel, and any gun that wouldn't show a recognizable outline in an X-ray machine.

That would essentially prohibit printing complete plastic guns on 3D printers, unless metal parts were included.

The bill stops short of banning untraceable guns, defined as guns without a serial number from a federally licensed firearm manufacturer.

Making untraceable guns for personal use is allowed within certain limits under federal law.

That wouldn't change under the bill, which doesn't subject untraceable firearms to the same kind of broad prohibition as undetectable guns.

Instead, Ferguson's bill only prohibits giving manufacturing assistance to anyone prohibited from owning a gun, like a felon, making the first offense a misdemeanor.

Plans for 3D printers would be included in that, and anyone selling them online would have to perform a background check on Washington buyers, according to Ferguson spokeswoman Brionna Aho.

While plans for 3D-printed guns have gained media attention, other untraceable gun kits can be purchased online, including so-called "80 percent" guns, which are sold with basic machining work like drilling left undone to circumvent federal registration requirements, and often come as a kit including instructions for completion.

Republicans were broadly critical of the measure ahead of Tuesday's vote, including Sen. Keith Wagoner, of Sedro-Woolley, who said the high cost of 3D printers was prohibitive, and questioned whether plastic guns would ever appeal to wrongdoers when manufacturing a metal alternative is possible.

"This is already covered under federal law," Wagoner said during earlier debate in the Senate. "You can go home in the workshop in a day and make something that really will hurt you."

After Tuesday's 56-40 vote, the measure now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee for consideration.

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