United States President Donald Trump came under heavy pressure on Tuesday to block blueprints for 3D printed plastic guns, stepping into the dispute after his government agreed to allow plans for guns that could be easy to conceal and difficult to trace.
Mr Trump tweeted he was “looking into” the issue and consulting the National Rifle Association.
The election-year headache is a problem of the administration’s own making. After a years-long court battle, the US State Department in late June settled a case against a Texas company that wants to provide directions to allow people to computer-print their own guns.
The settlement, which took gun-control advocates by surprise, allowed Austin-based Defence Distributed to resume posting blueprints for the hard-plastic guns at the end of July.
Those plans were put on hold late on Tuesday after a federal judge in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order to stop the release of the blueprints.
District Judge Robert Lasnik issued the order after eight Democratic attorneys general filed a lawsuit on Monday seeking to block the settlement that would allow the plans to be made available online. They said the plastic weapons were advantageous to terrorists and criminals, and would threaten public safety.
Hours before the restraining order was issued, Democrats sounded the alarm, warning about “ghost guns” that can avoid detection and pose a deadly hazard.
“All you need is a little money and you can download a blueprint from the internet to make a gun at home,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. “No background check. No criminal history check.”
The company’s website said the downloads would start on Wednesday, but blueprints for at least one gun — a plastic pistol called the Liberator — have been posted on the site since Friday. A lawyer for the company said he didn’t know how many blueprints had been downloaded since.
Outrage over the administration decision is putting gun control back into the election-year political debate, but with a high-tech twist.
The president seemed to express surprise. He said on Twitter he was looking into the idea of a company providing plans for printing guns to the public and that it “doesn’t seem to make much sense!”
Democrats agreed and said Mr Trump had the power to stop it.
Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts said Mr Trump has boasted that he alone can fix problems afflicting the country.
“Well, fix this deadly mistake that once again your administration has made,” Mr Markey said.
Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal went further, saying that if Mr Trump did not block the open printing of 3D guns, “blood is going to be on his hands”.
Some Republicans also expressed concern.
“Even as a strong supporter of the Second Amendment — this is not right,” Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski tweeted, linking to a news story on the guns.
Representative Ed Royce, a Republican from California and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was concerned that distribution of the blueprints could allow terrorists and international criminal organisations to manufacture guns that could avoid detection.
“It is critical that our laws keep pace with technology. We can’t give terrorists or violent criminals an easier path to obtaining deadly weapons,” Mr Royce said, in a letter to the president. “I stand ready to help support your administration in efforts to bolster our national security.”
The NRA said in a statement that “anti-gun politicians” and some members of the news media wrongly claim that 3D printing technology “will allow for the production and widespread proliferation of undetectable plastic firearms”.
In truth, “undetectable plastic guns have been illegal for 30 years,” said Chris W Cox, executive director of the NRA’s political arm. A federal law passed in 1988 — crafted with NRA support — bars the manufacture, sale or possession of an undetectable firearm.
Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, made the same point, saying the administration supports the law against wholly-plastic guns, including those made with a 3D printer.
And Texas Senator John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican, said: “People shouldn’t be under the impression they can download this and make an undetectable firearm.”
But Democrats called the law weak and said gun users can get around it by using weapons with a removable metal block that the gun doesn’t need, in order to function.
Mr Markey, Mr Blumenthal and other Democrats filed legislation that would prohibit the publication of a digital file online that allows a 3D printer to manufacture a firearm. Democrats also filed a separate bill to require that all guns have at least one non-removable component made of metal.
The second measure is intended to ensure that even guns primarily made of plastic can be discovered by metal detectors.
Republican Senator Mike Lee from Utah blocked a Democratic request to bring the bill straight to the Senate floor, citing First Amendment free speech concerns.
People can use the blueprints to manufacture plastic guns using a 3D printer. But industry experts have expressed doubts that criminals would go to that trouble, since the printers needed to make the guns can cost thousands of dollars, the guns themselves tend to disintegrate quickly and traditional firearms are easy to come by.
Unlike traditional firearms that can fire thousands of rounds in a lifetime, the 3D printed guns normally last only a few rounds before they fall apart, experts say. They usually hold a bullet or two and then must be manually loaded. And they’re not usually very accurate.
Chris Knox, communications director for The Firearms Coalition, a gun-rights group, called the Liberator handgun a “very crude ... zip gun” and said the growing debate over 3D printed guns was an overreaction.
Cody Wilson, founder of Defence Distributed, first published downloadable designs for a 3D-printed firearm in 2013. The plans were downloaded about 100,000 times until the State Department ordered him to cease, contending the effort breached federal export laws because some of the blueprints were downloaded by people outside the US.
The State Department reversed course last month, agreeing to allow Wilson to resume posting the blueprints.
The company filed its own suit in Texas on Sunday, asserting that it was the victim of an “ideologically fuelled programme of intimidation and harassment” that breached the company’s First Amendment rights.
Meanwhile, Defence Distributed agreed to temporarily block Pennsylvania residents from downloading the plans after state officials went to federal court in Philadelphia on Sunday seeking an emergency order. The company said it had also blocked access to users in New Jersey and Los Angeles.