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The United States Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 (18 U.S.C. § 922(p)) makes it illegal to manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer, or receive any firearm that is not as detectable by walk-through metal detection as a security exemplar containing 3.7 oz of steel, or any firearm with major components that do not generate an accurate image before standard airport imaging technology.
The general effect of this legislation is a ban on the manufacture, possession and transfer of firearms with less than 3.7 oz of metal content. The bill also requires handguns to be in the traditional shape of a handgun. The Act excepts from its prohibitions the federal government and its agencies, and may offer a safe harbor for licensed manufactures testing to determine if their firearms meet the Act's criteria.
What became the Undetectable Firearms Act began as an attempt to ban handguns like the Glock 17 in the mid-1980s. Pistols like the Glock had frames and grips made from lightweight polymer, and their novelty prompted public criticism that their relative lack of metal content meant they might be able to slip past airport metal detection and be suitable for use by terrorists.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) was unwilling to consider a ban on handguns with less than 8 oz of steel, and what resulted was a compromise bill that banned guns with less than half the metal content of the Glock. The NRA eventually agreed not to oppose the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 because it did not in fact affect any existing guns, and the gun control lobby was eager to promote it as one of the first successes of groups like Handgun Control, Inc (later the Brady Campaign).
Introduced by William J. Hughes (D-NJ), the bill was submitted to and amended by the House Judiciary Committee. The bill was approved by the House on April 10, 1988, and integrated with Senate bill S2180. Perceived to satisfy the major lobbies on both sides of the gun issue, the Act passed overwhelmingly in October 1988.
The original Act had a ten year sunset clause, and expired on November 10, 1998. Congress renewed the law for five years in 1998 (Pub.L. 105–277, H.R. 4328, 112 Stat. 2681, enacted October 21, 1998), and it again expired. In 2003, Congress re-authorized the ban for another ten years (Pub.L. 108–174, H.R. 3348, 117 Stat. 2481, enacted December 9, 2003). The law sunset on December 9, 2013. The renewal of the ban was signed into law by President Obama later that day.
The law's prospective ban was and is criticized for its politics being more significant than its effects.
With the advent of projects like the Wiki Weapon, 3D printing technologies have been noted for their abilities to help create largely polymer and ceramic firearms. Various groups of makers and tech enthusiasts have experimented with the technology in this capacity as well, leading to widespread speculation that traditional methods of gun control will become increasingly inoperable.
Proposed renewals and expansions of the current Undetectable Firearms Act (H.R. 1474, S. 1149) include provisions to criminalize individual production of firearm receivers and magazines that do not include arbitrary amounts of metal, measures outside the scope of the original UFA and not extended to cover commercial manufacture. These "modernization" proposals have been criticized as disingenuous attempts to suppress adoption of and experimentation with 3D printers in home gunsmithing.
On December 3, 2013, the House passed the bill To extend the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 for 10 years (H.R. 3626; 113th Congress), which would extend the Undetectable Firearms Act for 10 years but would not expand its restrictions. Senator Chuck Schumer announced that he would try to pass a rival bill in the Senate that would include additional restrictions on plastic guns and expand the law.