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Why Should We Care About 3-D Gun Printing?

by Kyle Wintersteen   |  September 4th, 2013 15

AP Photo

It seems anytime a new firearm technology hits the market, certain people line up with a host of terrifying reasons to ban it. Remember when Sen. Chuck Schumer D-N.Y. suggested a ban on the importation of Glocks because they’d slip through metal detectors? Obviously that’s not true, given the Glock’s metal springs, firing pin, steel slide and barrel. However, using similar logic, Schumer has found a new, recently invented target—3-D-printed guns.

“[3-D-printed] guns are made out of plastic, so they would not be detectable by a metal detector at any airport or sporting event,” Schumer said at a May news conference. “Only metal part of the gun is the little firing pin and that is too small to be detected by metal detectors, for instance, when you go through an airport. … A terrorist, someone who’s mentally ill, a spousal abuser, a felon can essentially open a gun factory in their garage.”

As usual, when our foe from New York opens his mouth on a firearms issue, we can expect to hear some misinformation. Let’s take a look at what 3-D-printed guns actually are, and their potential impact on the gun control debate, crime, firearm manufacturing and the culture of gun ownership.

The First 3-D-Printed Guns
The whole 3-D-printed gun hoopla kicked into high gear on May 5, 2013, when Cody Wilson—the 25-year-old founder of Defense Distributed—which had already made waves by printing AR-15 lower receivers and magazines—posted a video announcing the successful printing of a functional, single-shot, .380 ACP pistol dubbed the “Liberator.” Soon blueprints were posted, theoretically allowing any user to print his or her own Liberator pistol.

Within three days, however, the U.S. State Department ordered the files to be taken down while it investigates their legality. The government has yet to relinquish the order, though the files—like anything on the internet—are still available to anyone who searches hard enough.

Before their state-ordered removal, the blueprints were downloaded 100,000 times, according to Forbes, and—as Anthony Weiner can attest—once something is online it can’t truly be deleted. Homeland Security has since conceded, “limiting access [to 3-D gun technology] may be impossible.”

Meanwhile, the technology continues to progress. Inspired by the Liberator Project, in June a Canadian man unveiled the first 3-D-printed rifle—a .22-caliber single-shot he named the “Grizzly.” Its barrel and receiver cracked upon firing its first round. In August, Grizzly 2.0 was released. Outfitted with a beefier barrel and receiver, it fired 14 rounds of Winchester .22-caliber ammunition before cracking.

The Law Plays Catch-Up
Often the case with new technology, the law has been left scrambling trying to think of how to regulate the manufacture of 3-D-printed guns. The key questions are: Do we need new laws to regulate such guns, how do they fit under existing law, and if you’re Schumer, how do we ban them?

In May, Schumer announced he and Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., would introduce the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act and include language specifically banning 3-D-printed guns. Their prior bill, the Undetectable Firearms Act, already bans non-metal guns, which is a little like banning unicorns.

There are several reasons why a complete ban seems like unrealistic overkill. For starters, the Liberator pistol has a metal firing pin—a hardware store nail—and its blueprints include the insertion of a steel rod into the grip. Those who fail to insert the rod break existing federal law. However, the larger issue is whether such a law could be enforced. As alluded to by Homeland Security, 3-D printers are here to stay.

While those who post gun blueprints could be selectively prosecuted, good luck finding them all. Remember the State Department’s removal of the Liberator’s blueprints? The instructions have already popped up on at least one popular file-sharing network.

Wouldn’t it therefore make more sense to regulate the manufacture of 3-D-printed guns under existing federal law? For instance, it’s already possible for non-prohibited civilians to build their own firearms from kits. The notion scares the hell out of anti-gunners—including the far-left website Mother Jones—but criminals are clearly not gunsmithing hobbyists. Couldn’t the federal laws that govern that practice be applied 3-D gun printing as well?

Another form of regulation being discussed is recently invented software that blocks gun printing. It’s designed to prevent unauthorized users from printing guns, and it eases consumers’ apparent fears over accidentally printing a gun. I’m still trying to find out how you “accidentally” print a gun.

Why 3-D-Printed Guns May Not Catch On
Despite all the hype, 3-D-printed guns may not catch on—at least not anytime soon.

A decent 3-D printer costs $8,000. Budget units start at $1,500, and as with ink printers, often you get what you pay for. That’s a big investment for the average person, especially when the end result is a single-shot .22 that, if you’re lucky, won’t blow up in your hands. Are we to believe that a significant number of people—law-abiding or otherwise—will choose 3-D-printed guns over affordable, and more reliable guns already available?

For its part, the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms appears to be in no big rush to monitor 3-D-printed gun activity.

“We are aware of all the 3-D printing of firearms and have been tracking it for quite a while,” Earl Woodham, spokesperson for the ATF’s field office in Charlotte, N.C., told Motherboard. Woodham went on to say, “Our firearms technology people have looked at it, and we have not yet seen a consistently reliable firearm made with 3-D printing. … The difference is knowing your life depends on a gun—when someone breaks into your house—which one do you grab? The one that you 3-D-printed or the one you bought from the manufacturer?”

Those who do decide on a 3-D-printed gun are likely to find it isn’t as simple as pulling up a gun design and clicking print. In addition to the high cost, a writer for The Atlantic found unexpected barriers and gray areas in existing law, and limited availability of publicly accessible printers—even in New York City.

In fact, even Wilson himself thinks the technology he helped invent may not catch on.

“When you talk to people about 3-D printing now, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, you can make a gun with that!,’” he told The Washington Post. “But that doesn’t really touch on their lives and they haven’t found a way that they might actually use 3-D printing themselves. I’m not sure—it seems to be a foregone conclusion that it will be adapted and used. But then I look at all the rights-holders, and the different kinds of claims on the use of the technology, and then I’m not sure that it will be adopted en masse.”

Hypothetically, though, let’s say those barriers are erased. What happens if 3-D printers become more affordable, and the capability of producing guns with comparable quality to those rolled out daily by Ruger and Smith & Wesson? Certainly that would fit the ATF’s definition of a “consistently reliable firearm” worthy of regulation. In that case, several schools of thought would likely emerge. There’s the Schumer school—“Ban them all unless you love terrorists!”—which as discussed may not be appropriate or effective. Others have proposed regulating the sale of the 3-D printers themselves or requiring them to be sold with the gun-preventing software installed. However, as I see it, the most realistic, common-sense solution would again be the application of existing federal law.

3-D-printed guns wouldn’t be banned outright, but—as with traditional guns—a felon in possession would face a 10-year jail sentence. It would be illegal to distribute them without a federal firearms license; and 3-D-printed guns would require enough steel to comply with the Undetectable Firearms Act (Congrats, Schumer: Your law would finally apply to a gun that actually exists).

Truth is, nobody knows exactly how the future of 3-D-printed guns will play out or how popular they will become. However, experts agree they’re here to stay. It will be interesting to see how the government reacts to this new reality, and what ramifications it could have for gun ownership and firearm laws.

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  • Ramil

    If you really want to make a lethal weapon out of plastic, how about a blackjack weighted with lead shot? Doesn’t need to be reloaded, and never explodes in your hand. Or you can use steel shot, if you worry about the welfare of waterfowl, but it’s hard to bag a goose with a blackjack.

  • William Baker

    One file share site had the liberator shared over 4 million times a week after the order to ‘remove it’ from the internet lol. As for your prices on 3d printers, you’re off, one company makes models down to the $300 range.

  • JOE

    I would not shoot one if someone paid me ! Id be more afraid of it blowing up in my hands.

    • Raini Way

      All they have to do, then, is pass a law that automatically nominates anyone who dares use a 3D printout gun for a Darwin Award.

  • sevenbrokenbricks

    As I see it, the point of these weapons isn’t to supplant the use of traditional metal firearms, but to bring the concept of the homemade weapon to the forefront of current events, and in so doing, make it clear that gun control is impossible, impractical, and completely unnecessary.

  • Ben G

    I think at least part of the attraction of 3D printed firearms is the fear being generated by an over-reaching Government’s assault on the Second Amendment rights of law abiding citizens. New York State is on the point in terms of infringing upon these rights now banning magazines of more than 7 rounds, banning out right the purchase of so-called “assault rifles,” and the required registration by 15 April 2014 of those “grandfathered” firearms already in the hands of law abiding gun owners. This has horribly alienated many law-abiding citizens who may now or in the future be artificially transformed into felons by the Cuomo gun laws. I think in their hearts people would like to build their own “cold” firearm for protection in the event Cuomo and the like has their way and manages to disarm the honest citizens of America.

  • Mark

    This is going to be a far bigger deal in countries where firearms are prohibited, like the UK. How do you maintain that prohibition when a gun can be printed by anyone with access to a 3D printer (my local college has one for public use) and easily destroyed after use?

  • Mr C

    People tend to ignore the fact that you can already 3d print in a range of materials including Titanium…

  • Steven

    There is one MAJOR fault with the idea of requiring software to prevent printing of firearms. I GUARANTEE someone will hack any such software to allow printing guns. Anyone that wishes to have a gun they are not legally allowed to own isn’t going to care that modifying the software on the printer is illegal. There is also the issue of actually recognizing that a gun is being printed. What is the minimum number of parts before the software doesn’t know they are gun parts?

  • Thomas Bogan

    What would make more sense than still more of our right that “Shall not be infringed” is to repeal the existing 20,000 plus local, state, and federal laws that have accomplished nothing but to impede the ability of law abiding citizens to defend themselves from the criminals who ignore such worthless laws.

  • TPM

    Convicts have been building guns (zip guns, et al) in prisons, for years. Think about how restrictive things are in a prison. If a convict can build a gun, from pieces and parts of junk, so can anyone else.

    You’ll never keep guns out of the hands of the bad guys.
    WHY do progressives want to disarm the good guys?

  • Joseph P. Martino

    I think the approach of a plastic gun firing a gunpowder cartridge is the wrong way to go. I’d like to see 3-D printed plastic guns go the route of airguns instead. The Lewis & Clark expedition’s airguns would be a good place to start. Drawings of the internal parts are available on the Internet. Make the whole thing of plastic, wind the outside of the barrel with fiberglass to resist internal pressure, and make the barrel smoothbore, but use rifled slugs as bullets. Barrel life would probably be indefinite, and muzzle velocity for hunting-caliber slugs would be in a useful range, Take advantage of the properties of the material, instead of trying to adapt the material to an inappropriate approach.

    • Raini Way

      Let me know how that turns out. Meanwhile, I’ll rely on my much less likely to explode metal barrels.

  • Raini Way

    You know, this argument would still only be 10% valid if a non-metal gun actually EXISTED AND fired something OTHER than water!

  • Don Davis

    Gun regulation will eventually be rendered irrelevant. RepRap 3d printers are already designed to replicate themselves. The Second Amendment, as recognized by SCOTUS in Heller, effectively protects the right to use – or not be compelled to use – certain technologies. A firearm only requires a simple machining technology, and just as the music recording industry’s copyright laws are losing relevance, so will gun regulation as the ability to produce a firearm at will becomes readily available. the plodding legislative process can NEVER keep up with technology. The “open source” community that has produced free software alternatives to proprietary corporate software products will eventually offer us free technology of every sort. As soon as We the People can cheaply produce all the guns we want, there won’t be much concern over whether or not statists and 4th-Amendment oathbreakers can “detect” them.

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