Should Congress ban plastic guns?

Members of the House think so. Earlier this afternoon, the chamber extended a blanket prohibition on undetectable firearms in Washington's latest attempt at grappling with a new and sometimes confusing technology.

Lawmakers such as Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) have been pushing hard for the renewal to pass. Last month, Israel likened 3D printers to "Star Trek" replicators, saying that the ability to 3D-print weapons had turned science fiction into reality. The current law is set to expire on Dec. 9.

While 3D printing has driven a lot of the recent furor over plastic firearms, the move to restrict their use dates back at least a quarter-century.

The story begins with one of the most popular firearms on the market today — the Glock. Back in 1988, the Glock 17 became a favorite for its lightweight polymer construction. Police officers were delighted that they no longer needed to carry bulky, six-round revolvers that were hard for some to use under pressure and required frequent cleaning. But the Glock soon raised fears that its plastic components would allow it to slip past security checkpoints.

So Congress came up with the Undetectable Firearms Act, a law that's now 25 years old. It prohibited guns that couldn't be picked up in a metal detector or X-ray machine, and has been renewed twice since its passage. If the Senate now follows the House's lead, Congress will have voted to renew the act a third time. Sen. Chuck Schumer has been a vocal proponent of the ban, warning that not renewing it would risk letting people bring 3D-printed guns into schools, sports games, government buildings and airplanes.

The actual risk posed by plastic weapons isn't entirely clear. It turns out that actually making a 3D-printed gun is a lot harder than it sounds. The devices are prone to breaking, whereas even more recent advances in 3D-printed metals have produced a gun that survived a monster 500-round stress test. The design for many 3D-printed guns include a metal pin to make them compliant with the Undetectable Firearms Act. But often, the part is easily removed.

Indeed, plastics may continue to be the preferred material for the surreptitious kind, making them an easy, uh, target for jittery lawmakers.