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UPDATE: Congress extends ban on plastic firearms

Monday, December 9, 2013 | 4:25 p.m. CST; updated 5:14 p.m. CST, Monday, December 9, 2013

WASHINGTON — Congress has approved a 10-year extension of a ban on plastic firearms that can evade metal detectors and X-ray machines. But it has defeated gun-control advocates' push for tougher restrictions.

The Senate used a voice vote Monday to renew the ban. The House did the same last week, so it now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Republicans blocked a proposal by New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer. He wanted to require that plastic guns have an undetachable part made of metal.

Some plastic guns follow the law by including a metal piece that can be detached.

Democrats say 3-D printers that can produce plastic guns make tighter restrictions necessary. Republicans say Schumer's idea should be studied.

Unless Congress acted, the prohibition would have expired at midnight. The quarter-century-old ban has been renewed twice before.

Schumer wanted to strengthen the ban by requiring that such weapons contain undetachable metal parts. Some plastic guns meet the letter of current law with a metal piece that can be removed, making them a threat to be slipped past security screeners at schools, airports and elsewhere.

"Who in God's name wants to let plastic guns pass through metal detectors at airports or stadiums?" Schumer said in an interview Monday before the Senate vote.

The National Rifle Association, which has been instrumental in blocking gun restrictions, has expressed no opposition to renewing the law. But the gun lobby said it would fight any expanded requirements, including Schumer's, "that would infringe on our Second Amendment rights" to bear arms.

The rejection of stricter curbs underscores the repeated setbacks for gun-control advocates in Congress since Dec. 14, 2012. On that day, a gunman fatally shot 20 first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School before killing himself.

Despite that — and other recent mass shootings, including at the Washington Navy Yard just blocks from the Capitol — supporters of expanded gun control are nearing the end of a year in which they have been unable to push any new firearms restrictions through Congress.

"We're several decades behind the NRA," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. "This is a long game, and it's going to take us some time to build up the resources necessary to compete."

Congressional Republicans have resisted tightening the restrictions against undetectable guns, but those lawmakers — as well as the NRA — have not opposed renewing the current prohibition.

Plastic guns were in their infancy when President Ronald Reagan and Congress first enacted the ban against undetectable firearms. But such weapons have become a growing threat and can now be produced by 3-D printers, which are becoming better and more affordable.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Congress should extend the ban for a decade and study Schumer's more-restrictive plan later.

Supporters of tightening the rules say the 10-year renewal helps the gun lobby because it reduces Democrats' ability to revisit the issue.

The Sandy Hook killings prompted President Barack Obama and Democrats to make gun control a top domestic priority this year — but to no avail in Congress.

Their most stinging loss occurred in April when the Senate turned aside an effort to expand federal background checks for would-be gun purchasers, an effort to prevent criminals and mentally ill people from getting weapons. That measure would have required the checks for all sales at gun shows and online — expanding a system that is currently required only for sales through licensed firearms dealers.

Also defeated were proposed bans on assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines.

In a measure of GOP opposition and NRA clout, those proposals never even came to votes in the Republican-majority House.

But with Saturday's Newtown anniversary approaching, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., a psychologist, plans to announce legislation Thursday aimed at boosting federal mental health programs, including treatment, research and training for workers who respond to emergencies.

The lack of movement in the Democratic-led Senate has left gun-control groups divided about their 2014 goals.

Some are willing to set aside, for now, the push for expanded background checks and settle for more modest changes. These could include strengthening mental health programs and having states provide more records to the federal background check system.

Backing this approach are some Newtown families and the group Americans for Responsible Solutions, formed by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was seriously wounded by a shooter, and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly.

"Anything we can do, anything Congress can do to potentially save a life, one life, they should do," said Pia Carusone, executive director of Giffords' group.

Others want to continue raising pressure on lawmakers to back strong background check requirements, and they oppose aiming for less.

These groups include Mayors Against Illegal Guns, led by outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an organization that has been spending money against gun-rights congressional candidates and lawmakers. These groups are concerned that Republicans would use votes for weaker efforts to cast themselves as having championed major steps against guns.

"Our interest in giving (New Hampshire GOP Sen.) Kelly Ayotte a vote on a mental health bill, which would be a good bill but do virtually nothing to solve the gun violence problem in this country, approaches zero," said Mark Glaze, the mayors group executive director.

Ayotte voted against expanded background checks in April and has been criticized by gun-control groups ever since.


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