Gun violence in the US

Things to know about 3D-printed guns

Gun control proponents are concerned the weapons are untraceable, undetectable ‘ghost’ firearms that pose a threat to global security. Some gun rights groups say the technology is expensive, the guns are unreliable and the threat is being overblown

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2018, 6:06pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2018, 6:54pm

It’s made out of plastic, can take only a few hours to produce and fires bullets just like a metal gun.

In recent years, with the emergence of new technology, questions over whether people should be able to access blueprints that show how to make a firearm using a 3D printer have become a part of the increasingly polarised gun debate.

Opponents in the United States argue that it will open the door for criminals to easily access untraceable firearms, while supporters say that efforts to prevent the practice are useless and that there are already enough gun laws on the books.

In June, a Trump administration settlement gave the green light to a Texas-based company to post blueprints online showing people how to make 3D-printed guns from the comfort of their home – a swift move that reversed course from the previous administration.

The company, Defence Distributed, said it would put its plans online beginning August 1.

But late Tuesday, in response to a joint lawsuit filed by several attorneys general, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the release of downloadable blueprints for 3D printed guns. Earlier in the day, US President Donald Trump said on Twitter that he was “looking into 3D Plastic Guns being sold to the public” and that he would consult the National Rifle Association.

Here’s a look at the debate over 3D-printed guns:

What is a 3D-printed gun and how is it created?

The firearms are usually made out of ABS plastic – the stuff that Lego pieces are made of – and are created using special printers that can cost thousands of dollars.

Unlike metal firearms that have magazines that can usually hold several bullets, 3D guns can hold a bullet or two and then must be manually reloaded. There is no mandate for licensing 3D guns and they can be created without a serial number, making them untraceable by law enforcement.

How did the debate begin in the United States over 3D-printed guns?

In 2013, Cody Wilson, who owns Defence Distributed, posted plans online for creating a 3D-printed handgun he called the Liberator. The blueprints were downloaded nearly 100,000 times in one week before the State Department under President Barack Obama ordered it be taken down, arguing it violated federal export laws since some of the blueprints were downloaded by people outside the United States.

It would be a violation of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations that limit when and how Americans can sell weapons overseas, the government argued.

Wilson’s website also sought to offer blueprints for creating AR-style long guns with 3D printers.

For several years, Wilson has been engaged in a legal battle with the State Department, saying its decision violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

In June, the Trump State Department reversed course and gave the go-ahead to Wilson and his company to post the blueprints online.

Wilson lauded the decision on Twitter and his website noted it that he would begin posting blueprints online August 1. The government also agreed to pay nearly US$40,000 in legal fees that Wilson has accrued over the years.

“It’s personally satisfying,” Wilson told Fox News recently, adding that US gun culture has been “guaranteed safe passage” into the modern era.

What has been the response from gun control advocates?

There’s been strong resistance.

On Monday, attorneys general from eight states – all Democrats – filed a joint lawsuit in federal court in Seattle calling on the Trump administration to stop the plans from being posted and seeking a nationwide temporary restraining order.

“What kind of world are we living in where a criminal, terrorist, or anybody with access to the internet and a 3D printer can build a gun?” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in a statement.

“Once these tutorials to build 3D guns are unblocked, there is no turning back. This action has been taken in utter disregard for public safety and I will not stand for it,” Rosenblum said.

In addition, nearly two dozen state attorneys general wrote a letter urging US Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to immediately withdraw from the settlement because of the “reckless disregard to public safety that 3D guns creates”.

These views were echoed by gun control groups like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety.

“We will do everything in our power to make sure that untraceable downloadable guns remain nothing more than an idea. To those who want to see this dangerous concept become reality, all we have to say is this: not on our watch,” said Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign.

Many opponents have referred to 3D-printed guns as “ghost guns” because they lack serial numbers and owners do not need licenses.

Further, concerns have been raised that these firearms could get onto planes because the 3D guns are not metal and could go undetected.

What has the Trump administration said?

Not much. The decision to settle with Wilson’s company became public last week.

But as lawsuits from several states have surfaced in recent days, Trump took to Twitter – as is often the case – on Tuesday offering this: “I am looking into 3D Plastic Guns being sold to the public. Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense!”

Dana Loesch, a spokeswoman for the NRA, said in a video posted on last week that 3D-printed guns symbolise “freedom and innovation”, adding that there are already laws that unsuccessfully try to stop criminals from getting guns.

Is printing a gun worth the effort?

In practice, it’s not quite as easy as it sounds and 3D guns, some experts say, aren’t worth the trouble or risk of a weapon blowing up in your hand.

3D printers work by melting or fusing raw materials such as plastics or metals at high heat, then laying down successive layers of the material in a specific pattern determined by software. This is also known as additive manufacturing, and it’s used to produce simple objects like toys, prototypes of industrial products, human medical implants, and jet engine fuel nozzles.

Downloading the code for printing an AR-15 or M9 Beretta is merely the start. Opening and manipulating the file requires computer-aided design software and a fair amount of expertise. A user would also need a high-quality 3D printer, which can cost US$10,000 or more.

“A typical 3D desktop printer is not up to the task,” said Pete Basiliere, research vice-president for additive manufacturing at the Gartner consulting firm.

“It probably won’t have the quality of build to make the gun safe. Even if the quality is acceptable, the range of materials that are used in an extrusion printer are so limited that there’s a great risk of the gun misfiring in your hand.”

In fact, a 3D-printed plastic firearm may prove a greater danger to the person holding it than anyone standing in front of it, said Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, an additive manufacturing consultancy.

In 2013, police in New South Wales, Australia, manufactured copies of Wilson’s original 3D gun, known as the Liberator, using a US$1,700 desktop printer. They then placed it in a vise and fired it multiple times, using a wire to pull the trigger. Each time, the gun blew up as the bullet left the chamber.

Producing a gun using a metal 3D printer would probably result in a higher quality weapon but at a much greater cost, noted Basiliere. Additive manufacturing machines that can use steel, aluminium, nickel, or other metal powders start at well over US$100,000.

Where to now?

As the debate over guns continues in the United States, many firearms enthusiasts are moving toward do-it-yourself methods of gun making.

In addition to 3D guns, an unfinished lower receiver – part of a gun sometimes referred to as an “80 per cent receiver” – can legally be bought without a serial number from a seller who is not a federally licensed firearms dealer as long as it is missing the key components that would make it a firearm.

After drilling a few remaining holes in the unfinished metal shell, a buyer can attach a barrel, trigger mechanism, stock and upper receiver to make a complete weapon.

Do-it-yourself gun culture in the US has stirred anxiety in other countries.

Soon after Wilson’s company posted plans for its Liberator in 2013, Britain’s Daily Mail reported that two of its reporters had printed a gun and taken it on a train from London to Paris. The report raised concerns among European officials.

Additional reporting by The Guardian and Reuters