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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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