Special Guest Author – Rick Vasquez of Rick Vasquez Firearms LLC and
former ATF Acting Chief of the Firearms Technology Branch
If you had zero knowledge of firearms as many talking heads on the media display, you might believe there is a new phenomenon called 3D printing of guns. Additionally, you may believe polymer firearms were recently designed, and thirdly, you would likely have no idea what the Undetectable Firearm Act is. With this lack of knowledge, you may spew disinformation about how modern firearms are undetectable and easily bypass all security elements.
Polymer firearms have been around several years. The first successful firearm with a polymer receiver was the H&K VP70 pistol. This pistol was introduced circa 1970. Then, of course, the Glock which took polymer firearms to a new height was introduced circa 1980-1982 ( https://eu.glock.com/en/explore-glock/glock-history). After this date, the use of polymers in firearm receivers has become common place.
During the 1980’s, the hysteria on plastic guns played out in the media exactly as it is today. There was hysteria over the ability of a polymer firearm to pass through a metal detector. In 1986, there was a supposed incident at the Atlanta Airport in which a Glock passed the screening, and it created media hysteria. It was later discovered that the screening machine was not properly being used, but why waste a good story?
The media began covering plastic and undetectable guns that could not be discovered with airport equipment. I have provided a few links to stories from the 1980s on undetectable firearms. (Footnote 1) Of course, a good lawmaker could not let misinformation go without passing an anti-gun law. Because of the issue created by the media, the Undetectable Firearm Act was passed in 1988. (Footnote 2) Imagine if this law had made plastic firearms unlawful, what the historical impact would have been to our military and law enforcement?
But what can Congress do to alleviate a law they proposed impacting manufacturers in heavy democrat districts in 1988? If the law prohibits polymer firearms, manufacturers like Glock and S&W would be out of business. This is easy! Congress changes the meaning of a firearm receiver in the new statute. In the Gun Control Act, Title 18 U.S.C. section 921 (a)(3) firearm is defined as (3) The term “firearm” means (A) any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive; (B) the frame or receiver of any such weapon; (C) any firearm muffler or firearm silencer; or (D) any destructive device… Such term do not include an antique firearm.
The undetectable statute is listed in its’ entirety below but for comparison to the definition of a firearm receiver already in the Gun Control Act, the pertinent parts are here: Title 18, U.S.C., Chapter 44, Section 922 (p)(1) It shall be unlawful for any person to manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer, or receive any firearm–
(A) that, after removal of grips, stocks, and magazines, is not as
detectable as the Security Exemplar, by walk-through metal detectors calibrated and operated to detect the Security Exemplar; or
(B) any major component of which, when subjected to inspection by the types of x-ray machines commonly used at airports, does not generate an image that accurately depicts the shape of the component. Barium sulfate or other compounds may be used in the fabrication of the component.
(2) For purposes of this subsection –
(A) the term “firearm” does not include the frame or receiver of any such weapon;
(B) the term “major component” means, with respect to a firearm, the barrel, the slide or cylinder, or the frame or receiver of the firearm; and …
In the Gun Control Act, the firearm frame is all of the following: the housing, the registered part, the part that must be serialized, and the part a background check must be conducted on for a lawful transfer. Under the Undetectable Firearm Act the receiver as defined in the GCA is not restricted to be made of plastic or polymer or any non-metallic substance. The Undetectable Firearms Act was written to only prohibit the ability of a slide or barrel to be made that does not have the same detectability as the “security exemplar.”
Recently Government experts have been informing the media that a firearm must have the same amount of metal as a security exemplar made of 3.7 ounces of PH 17- 4 stainless steel. This is incorrect, the law does not require that the slide or barrel possess at least 3.7 ounces of PH17-4 stainless steel, the law requires the handgun must be as detectable under the equipment used in 1988, as the security exemplar. This is the misinformation that is being passed through the media. Whether they are getting the information through lawmakers or law enforcement bureaus, the research is not being conducted.
This watered-down version of the law was passed to protect manufacturers in heavy democrat voting districts and then appear that they are protecting citizens against terrorist. In 1988 and today, polymer firearms are made with metal slides and barrels. These polymer receivers do not have 3.7 ounces of PF 17-4 stainless or other metal in the “receiver” that is regulated in section 921(a)(3).
Of course, once Cody Wilson made the Liberator pistol using a 3d printer and plastic, the antigun hysteria has reawakened. Numerous government agencies bought 3D printers and made a Liberator pistol with a file that was uploaded to the internet by Cody Wilson.
Then they did their own testing. The testing shows that the plastic barrel may withstand one or a few rounds of .380 caliber ammunition.3 Numerous other agencies made AR15 lower receivers and also tested them. With affordable and available 3D printing, the AR 15 receiver is a more viable firearm to make using a 3D printer. The difference in the AR receiver is that the receiver is not the part of the firearm that accepts the chamber pressure. The chamber pressure is captured in the steel barrel in the upper assembly. Of course, there are more expensive aluminum and steel 3D printers available, but the hobbyists are not going to purchase these to make a firearm. These versions of 3D printers will eventually be cost effective as technology advances.
Remember, the Liberator is a one-shot pistol that must be disassembled to be reloaded. The World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists using boxcutters. Does the technology at the airport have the capability to pick up boxcutters?
The report prepared by a law enforcement agency on the Liberator informed Cody Wilson that if he made the Liberator pistol, he must install a 3.7 ounce piece of metal into the receiver. The following instruction was given:
The steel block recommendation reads as follows:
“Once the frame is finished, epoxy a 1.19×1.19×0.99″ block of steel in the 1.2×1.2×1.0″ hole in front of the trigger guard. Add the bottom cover over the metal if you don’t want it to show.
Once the epoxy has dried [sic], the steel is no longer removable, and is an integral part of the frame. Now your gun has 6 ounces of steel and is thus considered a ‘detectable’ firearm.” This is statutorily incorrect as 922(p) does not consider the firearm receiver the receiver. It considers the barrel and slide assembly the detectable portions. Additionally, this block of steel is not in the shape of a security exemplar and would not give off the satisfactory image required by the statute.
Cody Wilson should have been properly informed that the Liberator, having a smooth bore, is an “any other weapon” (AOW) under the National Firearms Act. If he were a licensed manufacturer of firearms and had paid the special occupational tax to make NFA weapons, he could properly register the Liberator as an “AOW”. Regardless of the registration, the barrel assembly must comply with 922(p) and have as much detectability as a 3.7-ounce 17-4 PH stainless steel security exemplar.
Since the invention of plastic firearms, there have been other designs of firearm receivers that could create an undetectable concern. Firearms manufacturers are currently making an internal metal chassis that is considered the firearm, and the polymer grip is only a housing. The following link shows a 80% pistol chassis for a Sig pistol for sale. https://www.1776supplyco.com/product/80-p320-pistol-frame/. The chassis, being the receiver, does not weigh 3.5 ounces nor will it show the same resonance as the security exemplar. Another example of a firearm that can be made with simple tools and with the receiver not being made of metal is the after-market Glock 80% receiver. https://www.glockstore.com/Spectre-Polymer80-Compact-Textured. These firearms are more available and easier to make than a 3D printed Liberator.
The real issue is the fact that our lawmakers and senior law enforcement heads do not know the subject or the laws that they pass. When asked what they are doing to fix a problem that does not exist, they create media hysteria by commenting with bizarre explanations.
Technology is advancing daily. Don’t view technology changing in a few years or even months. Think of it changing in a matter of days. The technology being used by the firearms industry is very critical to all aspects of its industry. All firearms built or provided for our military are developed by private firearms manufacturers. Our military and law enforcement do not have a firearm making capability. Therefore, firearms manufacturers, in an effort to sell their product to our military, invest hundreds of millions of dollars developing technology that benefits all sectors of U.S. manufacturing.
3D printing is a perfect example of advancing technology that was not being used to it’s potential in the manufacturing industry. Until Cody Wilson built the Liberator pistol, very few people even knew what 3D printing was or that the technology existed. Many sectors of all industry and manufacturing are now using 3D printing technology for development of different products. The cost of rapid prototyping and making new designs is decreasing rapidly.
Modern manufacturing is moving forward with new technologies and instead of trying to impede the progress by our lawmakers and law enforcement, people need to be looking for methods of detection. In 2003, I visited the Transportation Safety Administration Technology Center in Atlantic City, NJ. I met with senior personnel and discussed the types of technology that could detect supposed undetectable firearms and other undetectable items. At the time, the magnetometer that ATF owned for testing was so outdated, it could not be repaired and had not been used in several years.
In 2003, I received a lot of information regarding detection equipment and a lot of information regarding magnetometers. All of this was shared with management. Magnetometers that were in use by TSA in 2003 were technologically superior to the one that was used at the same time by FTB. What technology is available in 2018? Previous magnetometers, as the model that FTB owned, were required to be able to detect a set of 3 specific weapons. The equipment that TSA had was sensitive enough to detect all polymer firearms, polymer knives and other weapons. Additionally, current magnetometers are calibrated on a daily basis.
Instead of fighting technology, embrace it. Use technology to defend against all threats and use the best detecting machines at the airport. A razor-sharp ceramic knife is a far superior and deadly weapon than a one or two-shot firearm that must be disassembled to be reloaded. If our airports do not have the proper equipment to detect these types of items, then our law makers should be fired. In closing, just imagine the historical impact on our law enforcement and military if our law makers had outlawed the use of plastic in the manufacturing of firearms.
Former Assistant Chief/Acting Chief
ATF Firearms Technology Branch Current
Firearms Industry Advisor
1 http://articles.latimes.com/1988-04-26/news/mn-1594_1_plastic-gun; https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1986/05/15/the-deadly-truth-about-plastic- guns/d5d14631-ed41-4fb4-bf8c-63098269cabc/?utm_term=.1ad13948a40e.
Title 18, U.S.C., Chapter 44, Section 922 (p)(1) It shall be unlawful for any person to manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer, or receive any firearm –
(A) that, after removal of grips, stocks, and magazines, is not as detectable as the Security Exemplar, by walk-through metal detectors calibrated and operated to detect the Security Exemplar; or
(B) any major component of which, when subjected to inspection by the types of x-ray machines commonly used at airports, does not generate an image that accurately depicts the shape of the Barium sulfate or other compounds may be used in the fabrication of the component.
(2) For purposes of this subsection –
(A) the term “firearm” does not include the frame or receiver of any such weapon;
(B) the term “major component” means, with respect to a firearm, the barrel, the slide or cylinder, or the frame or receiver of the firearm; and
(C) the term “Security Exemplar” means an object, to be fabricated at the direction of the Secretary, that is –
(i)constructed of, during the 12-month period beginning on the date of the enactment of this subsection, 3.7 ounces of material type 17-4 PH stainless steel in a shape resembling a handgun; and
(ii) suitable for testing and calibrating metal detectors:
Provided, however, That at the close of such 12-month period, and at appropriate times thereafter the Secretary shall promulgate regulations to permit the manufacture, importation, sale, shipment, delivery, possession, transfer, or receipt of firearms previously prohibited under this subparagraph that are as detectable as a “Security Exemplar” which contains 3.7 ounces of material type 17-4 PH stainless steel, in a shape resembling a handgun, or such lesser amount as is detectable in view of advances in state-of-the-art developments in weapons detection technology.