In 2013, a Texas man successfully test fired a gun he built using parts mostly created with a 3D printer. Immediately following his test, he posted the electronic plans for the gun on his website, DEFCAD.com. The federal government quickly stepped in, however, and ordered the site be shutdown citing an obscure international trade law violation. Thus began the battle over the access to 3D printed guns.
A Short History of 3D Printed Guns
The man is Cody Wilson – a self proclaimed libertarian and anarchist who founded the company Defense Distributed in an effort to engage “in the research, design, development, and manufacture of products and services for the benefit of the American rifleman”. In 2012 Wilson began the search for plans for building a 3D printed gun in an effort to “undermine the powers of traditional liberal institutions”.
What is a 3D printed gun? To avoid a much too complex and technical answer, here’s the short version: A computer takes a 3D CAD file for some kind of object and then sends that file to a 3D printer. The 3D printer then (typically) melts some type of plastic or polymer and places it on a surface where the plastic is then added in multiple thin layers whereby creating a physical object. 3D printers are commercially available ranging in cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.
After the federal government shut Wilson’s website down he did not give up on his effort. In 2015 he filed a lawsuit against the government claiming that they violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and free press. His argument is that while the information he was publishing was in fact plans for building 3D printed guns – it was still just information – and therefore should not be censored. Rather than see the case through to trial, the government settled with Wilson and his website was back online August 1 of this year. Several states have filed injunctions, however, preventing the site from posting its files.
Those who argue that 3D printed guns are a bad idea usually offer the following arguments:
- Accountability – A gun made by an individual with a 3D printer is untraceable thereby making it impossible to track or confiscate
- Accessibility – Putting the plans for 3D printed guns online makes it too easy for anyone to get a gun
- Detection – A gun made of plastic cannot be detected by metal detectors and therefore can allow people with guns into sensitive public areas
Let’s look at these three arguments and see which are grounded in verifiable fact and which are more panic that practical.
A gun that cannot be traced or detected does sound scary. Indeed the tales of such firearms have been around since the 1960’s – in comic books, movies and television – not in history or science books.
Those words were uttered by John McClane in Die Hard 2. Of course if it was said it in a movie, than it must be true. Right? Wrong. Very, very wrong. A Glock 7 never existed. It is simply made up for entertainment purposes. Also, Glock is an Austrian gun manufacturer. An all polymer functioning firearm has never been accomplished. Although the Soviets claimed to have created a polymer pistol called the Troika in the 1970s, no evidence has ever been found to suggest this was true. While individuals, companies and even governments have tried to accomplish such a task, it has yet to be accomplished.
That being said, a firearm made by an individual using homemade parts is – for all intents and purposes – untraceable. Consider this, however: a gun manufactured by an individual for that individual’s use is not an illegal gun. So while most people don’t have the materials or skill to build a traditional firearm with metal it is legal to do so. It always has been. Therefore while creating a gun with a 3D printer and plastic is new, it also is not illegal. In that sense, ghost guns do exist. They have for a very long time.
How Easy Is It to Make a 3D Printed Gun?
In essence, all you need to make a 3D printed gun is a 3D printer, a computer and the polymer material used to feed the printer (essentially the printer’s ink). So at a glance, yes, anyone can now print and own 3D printed guns as long as they can afford those items. Let’s look at it in more detail, though. 3D printers are now available for as little as a few hundred dollars. There are more expensive ones that cost a few thousand dollars that print with more precision using more expensive and stronger polymers. Even more precise 3D printers cost tens of thousands of dollars with materials promising to be as strong as steal.
All that being said, let’s look at this practically. Let’s say I’m a bad person who wants to do something bad and I want a gun to do it. Option one: Spend $5000 on a computer and a 3D printer. Watch hours of YouTube videos to figure out how to get the software and the materials I need to print a 3D gun and to put it together. Go out and do my bad thing hoping that I built my gun right so it doesn’t explode in my face. Option two: buy an illegal gun off the street for a couple hundred dollars. Option three: steal a gun. If you were a bad guy which option would you choose?
3D Printed Guns Are NOT All Plastic
You read that correctly. A 3D printed gun does not contain only plastic. In order for the gun to function there are two pieces required that are made of metal: the firing pin and the ammunition. There is currently not a polymer available for 3D printers that is strong enough to fire a bullet. Therefore, the firing pin has to be created from some kind of metal. As also mentioned, the ammunition is made of metal – typically 2 or 3 types of metal actually. The casing is most likely brass, the slug is made from lead and if its a jacketed round it is probably covered in copper. All three are detectible by a metal detector.
So, where does that leave us? Well, ghost guns exist and just about anyone can make one. Who will though? The curious? Maybe. People who want to see if something can be done might try it but should we fear them? Probably not. Who does that leave? Criminals? Most likely not. It’s just not practical or cost-effective. Children? Maybe a few. I would venture to say that in those cases I think bad parenting is more a problem than the plastic gun. Even then, the “children” that do make one still have to get ammunition to do anything with it.
At the end of the day 3D printed guns are hardly a “crisis” and they don’t change the first or second amendments. Like 3D TVs plastic guns are at best an oddity and a fad. It is highly doubtful that they will overarchingly change the world as we know it.
Images copyright: DEFCAD, Aleph Objects Inc., The Mary Sue