Is Government Ready for 3-D-Printed Guns?

The technology is here, but will guns from 3-D printers become a problem?

by / August 26, 2014

These days, anyone with access to an Internet connection and a 3-D printer can view or download schematics from innumerable places to create homemade plastic guns -- guns that are difficult to detect and perhaps impossible for law enforcement to control, at least not until after the fact, The New York Times reported.

But that hasn’t stopped the government from trying.

In December 2013, the U.S. Senate extended the Undetectable Firearms Act for 10 additional years, just before it was set to expire, upholding the law’s prohibition on manufacturing, selling or possessing guns that can’t be detected by x-rays or metal detectors. This came weeks after Philadelphia became the first United States city to ban the 3-D printing of guns at the local level.

Though the extension was unanimous, at least one lawmaker felt it wasn’t strong enough. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., argued that the ban was ill-suited to restrict 3-D-printed guns that users could create out of plastics or other material that would pass undetected through security checkpoints.

Yet 3-D-printed gun accessibility abounds in America, ban or no ban. Last month, a man going by the moniker “Buck O’Fama” gained some attention for his claim that he 3-D printed the receiver for a semi-automatic Ruger Charger pistol. He only printed the receiver, but he bought the remaining parts online without the need for legal paperwork. Roughly a year prior, news outlets wrote about the Liberator, a 3-D gun created by Texas-based manufacturers that fired .380 caliber bullets. It was reportedly the world’s first fully 3-D-printed gun, comprising 15 plastic components. The 16th piece --  a common nail -- served as the firing pin.

And as of this writing, downloading 3-D-printed gun schematics is pretty easy. 

Blueprints for the Liberator were downloaded 100,000 times in two days, according to Forbes. And as of Aug. 26, torrent and file sharing sites offer downloads for schematics for other types of guns as well. There are also innumerable YouTube videos of people firing 3-D-printed guns, and they definitely got the instructions for those creations from somewhere.  

But there’s disagreement on just how effective or useful a 3-D-printed gun would be compared to the real thing. Earl Woodham, spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told last year that his technicians were skeptical of 3-D printing’s effectiveness.

“Our firearms technology people have looked at it," he said, "and we have not yet seen a consistently reliable firearm made with 3-D printing."

Many people claim that the common 3-D-printed gun isn’t as durable as a regular gun and can’t be fired too many times before breaking. For example, legal and technology blogger Josh Blackman wrote that 3-D-printing a gun is more difficult than it’s worth, and that finding authentic, regular guns is easier and more convenient than going through all that trouble.

But 3-D printing metal guns may not be that far off: In 2013, the company Solid Concepts used industrial-grade printers to manufacture a functioning, metal Browning 1911 pistol. Solid Concept’s marketing vice president, Scott McGowan, told RT News that the printers used are too sophisticated and expensive for widespread consumer use.

“It’s definitely an industrial, commercial-type process," he said, "and it’ll be years before metal printers become available on the consumer market, if at all."

Demand will likely grow for smaller 3-D printers in the home that work with metal. The Mini-Metal Maker 3-D printer, for example, has reached its funding goal on IndieGogo, indicating that people are ready for the technology. The printer is designed to make small metal objects, like homemade jewelry, but it could be the precursor for successive iterations of machines that can handle more complex creations. 

Perhaps the real danger, however, would be in the hands of curious users who don’t know what they’re getting into. Though plastic guns may not be used as many times as their metal counterparts, it only takes one shot to hurt or kill someone. 

Hod Lipson, director of Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab, told The New York Times that the inexperienced 3-D firearms users is the biggest problem.

“Weapons experts will tell you these guns are a joke and not that serious,” he told The Times. “But that’s exactly the problem. Plastic guns are easy to fabricate, they can be used just a few times and you can make guns that don’t look like guns ... the real danger is kids and teenagers and hobbyists who will attempt to make these.”

Regardless of the technology’s effectiveness, it could be here to stay, in spite of what government wants to do about it. In summer 2013, the Department of Homeland Security warned that the widespread availability of 3-D printers and plastic materials in the home could make it impossible for authorities to effectively regulate. 

Mashable covered the DHS memo and its contents. Limiting access, the organization claimed, could be impossible.

“Proposed legislation to ban 3-D printing of weapons may deter, but cannot completely prevent, their production," the memo stated. “Even if the practice is prohibited by new legislation, online distribution of these digital files will be as difficult to control as any other illegally traded music, movie or software files."

The overall gun control battle, however, continues.

On Aug. 25, 2014, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda donated $1 million to Washington state’s Initiative 594 campaign, an effort to expand background checks on gun sales. If passed, I-594 would require background checks for all state gun sales and transfers, though legislation literature makes no mention of 3-D printed guns.

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

Platforms & Programs