The Republican-led House passed a bill Tuesday renewing a U.S. ban on plastic guns, just days before the 1988 law is set to lapse.
The ban on weapons that can elude detectors at security checkpoints expires Dec. 9, as the Senate returns from a recess and is set to take up the measure. The National Rifle Association, the largest U.S. gun lobby, has been silent on the plastic-gun ban.
The House by voice vote passed the bill, sponsored by North Carolina Republican Howard Coble. The measure heads to the Senate, where Democratic lawmakers are considering revisions to deal with emerging technology.
Advocates for expanded gun laws say the House vote may be a signal that some support exists for stricter laws after the shooting almost a year ago in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 elementary school students and six adults.
"Any time you see the House of Representatives moving forward on firearms legislation it's a very good sign," said Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
In April the Senate failed to advance expanded background checks for gun buyers, a stripped-down version of President Barack Obama's call for stricter gun limits after the Newtown shootings. His proposal had included bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines such as the Bushmaster rifle and 30-round clips used in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the chamber's No. 3 Democrat, has vowed to expand the plastic-gun ban to cover emerging three-dimensional technology that lets individuals make and carry detachable parts that can't be detected by security. He lost a bid on Nov. 27 to extend the law for one year, rather than 10, so he could work on revisions.
"The House bill is better than nothing, but it's not good enough," Schumer said Monday in a statement. "Under current law it is legal to make a plastic gun so long as it has some metal in it, even if it is easily removable. The bill we'll try to pass in the Senate would fix that."
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, told reporters Tuesday the bill could be improved, though "I think extending it is better than not extending it."
A Senate vote next week, days before the one-year anniversary of the Newtown shootings, is "not great" for opponents of updating the law or of delaying it for one year, said Arkadi Gerney, crime and gun-policy analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
The law's renewal in the past has been "pretty uncontroversial," he said. All except four House members voted for it in 1988, and it has been renewed twice.
"I don't think there's a lot of appetite for House and Senate members to vote against something that seems like common sense to most of their constituents," he said. "They need to have metal that is not easily removable, metal that is necessary to the function of a firearm."
Everitt said gun-control advocates could temporarily accept a ban that doesn't include 3-D technology.
"So few people have access to these things yet," he said. With guns already easy to acquire in the U.S., most street criminals will see no point in buying expensive 3-D equipment. The potential for terrorists to use the technology is "definitely a concern," he said.
The current ban requires that guns be made with at least 3.7 ounces of stainless steel so they can be detected by screeners. It doesn't require the steel portion to be attached.
New 3-D technology would let individuals make a plastic gun that can be disassembled, without the parts drawing scrutiny from screening.
Last year, Texas firearms dealer Cody Wilson posted online directions to make a gun called a "Liberator" on a 3-D printer. More than 100,000 copies of the world's first 3-D printed gun were downloaded before the State Department told Wilson to remove the file.
The NRA hasn't stated a position on renewing the ban, and spokesman Andrew Arulanandam yesterday didn't return a phone call seeking comment.
Mike Hammond, legislative counsel for the Gun Owners of America, a gun-advocacy group in Springfield, Va., said the technology is now widely available, making a plastic-gun ban unnecessary.
"The genie's out of the bottle," Hammond said.
Individuals who intend to break the law will not be deterred by a ban on plastic materials, he said. "It's stupid to think it would make any difference."
Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in a Nov. 26 statement that Democrats were "playing politics with public safety" by seeking a one- year extension rather than reauthorizing the law for five or 10 years.
Grassley said Democrats had "consciously and consistently rebuffed our efforts" to craft a longer-term prohibition and, "intending to make Republicans object" had introduced "their inadequate bill."
Republicans and pro-gun groups are concerned that a one- year extension would give Democrats an opportunity to attach gun restrictions to the bill next year.
"The real goal there is to throw the decision making into the lame duck, at which point, Schumer is hoping Republicans will throw their constituents over board," Hammond said.