3D printed guns: where are we now?
Less than a decade ago, millions of people had no idea what 3D printing was and learned about it for the first time when the headlines of international news read “3D printed guns”. Years after the first 3D printed gun was created, people and governments still discuss this topic, the opinions are divided. But how did the story of 3D printed guns begin? What 3D printing technologies are used? Why do some people believe that 3D printed firearms are more dangerous than “traditional” ones, while others disagree? We wrote a review on the subject of 3D printed guns to address these questions.
Cody Wilson invents the 3D printed gun
It all started in 2012, when a man named Cody Wilson revealed his plan to make the design of firearms open-source so that everyone could print a weapon at home. A self-proclaimed crypto-anarchist, he was neither a criminal nor a deranged geek, but a Law student at the University of Texas at the time. However, he left the university the next year – to commit, apparently, fulltime to the development and distribution of 3D printed guns. For this purpose, he founded an organization, Defense Distributed, with its own online platform called Defcad. Wilson identifies it not as a tech business, but rather a “nonprofit defense organization”, whose purpose is to fight against government censorship.
In 2013, the very first CAD (computer-aided design) gun file became available online, which you could download for free, everywhere in the world. The digital file immediately went viral, with more than 100,000 downloads in just 2 days. Unsurprisingly, this prompted the US Government to demand that Defense Distributed remove the file from their site.
3D printed guns in the US
What followed is a legal battle between Cody Wilson and the US Government, consisting of back-and-forth lawsuits. It lasted 5 years, until in 2018, the Trump administration legalized the 3D printed guns. The same year, Wilson was charged with sexual assault of an underage girl, and had to step down from Defense Distributed. Nonetheless, the organization did not cease to exist without Cody. Today, for a yearly fee of $50, the users of the Defcad website can access the files containing different designs of 3D printed guns. The users can not only download but also upload files, that are, by the way, not available to people outside of the US.
Interestingly enough, the 2018 legalization by the Trump administration was not the end of the story. In 2019, a federal judge in Seattle ruled the legalization illegal, and thus temporarily blocked Defcad, again. In response to that blockage, Deterrence Dispensed group was formed the same year (2019). While they share the same ideology, this network of gun activists is different from Defense Distributed in that it is completely decentralized, which means that it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to stop them. On their website the activist network states: “Deterrence Dispensed has deliberately chosen not to formally organize. This ensures that nothing can affect us as a group, as occurred to Defense Distributed when the government prevented them as a company from releasing the Liberator pistol plans. (…) Since its inception, Deterrence Dispensed has been releasing open-source firearms knowledge to the public sphere and will continue to do so indefinitely”.
All gun activists, including Defense Distributed and Deterrence Dispensed, refer to the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, « A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed». So, the legal battle between gun activists and the US Government still goes on today. In early 2020, a coalition of 20 states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit against the federal government over the Trump Administration’s decision to allow sharing 3D printed gun files on the internet.
Types of 3D printed guns
The 3D printed firearm is also known as the “ghost gun”, since it doesn’t have a commercial serial number or any other marks that could potentially help identify the owner. The Liberator .380 – the one designed and released by Cody Wilson in 2013 – was the first 3D printed plastic gun. It was a single shot pistol made with Fused Deposition Modeling on a Stratasys Dimension SST 3D printer. Up until today, the Liberator is the closest thing to a fully plastic gun, although it still requires a steel nail that serves as the firing pin. An important characteristic of a plastic gun -and a reason to fear it – is that it does not trigger metal detectors. But more about it later.
While Liberator might be the best-known 3D printed gun made from plastic, there are also stronger and more reliable guns that can be made using metal 3D printing. For example, the Solid Concepts replica of Browning 1911 handgun was the first 3D printed metal gun. Solid Concepts was an AM company based in California, but it was acquired by Stratasys in 2014. Their 3D printed metal handgun was built using Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DLMS) technology, and could fire more than 600 bullets without any damage to the gun. It is believed to be the most reliable metal 3D printed gun made so far.
However, while the metal guns are much more reliable than the plastic ones, they are also quite out of reach to an average person. The metal printer used to create the Solid Concepts 1911 weapon cost between $500,000 to $1 million at the time the gun was created (November 2013), and the gun itself was being sold for $11,900 a piece.
The technology behind 3D printed guns
When discussing the actual process of 3D printing a firearm, it is important to note that a 3D printer simply cannot create a complex mechanism like a functional gun all in one piece. Thus, the individual elements are all printed separately and later assembled manually. It is a rather long process, and not an easy one either.
As for the materials, in order to manufacture a gun with an FDM 3D printer, one can choose between several types of thermoplastics. However, it is usually either PLA or ABS that is used for this purpose. But even these thermoplastics are not perfect for the fabrication of a functional gun. PLA is softer, so a part made from it typically deforms very quickly. ABS is harder, but it only means that it will crack and break rather than deform. Therefore, the user can usually only fire one bullet before a thermoplastic part breaks – the explosive force of firing a bullet being too powerful. For example, in 2013, a police department in Australia tested out a 3D printed gun: they were able to fire a 17 centimeters bullet, but the plastic immediately exploded once the bullet was discharged.
Debate and controversy
Naturally, there is a conflict between gun activists and those that passionately denounce gun violence. In the United States, most of the time, the debate about 3D printed guns represents a wider debate about guns and gun violence.
Yet, there are some people who fear 3D printed guns in particular, much more than they do “conventional” ones, and they have their own arguments. Firstly, they fear the untraceable nature of this weapon, since it makes it rather difficult to identify the shooter. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, as the makers and owners of 3D printed guns are not subject to background check, a person can 3D print a gun even if they are mentally ill, felons, or underage.
In addition, plastic guns do not trigger metal detectors, which is a solid reason to ban this type of firearms. Even if a thermoplastic gun is prone to break after a single shot, it can still kill or injure one person. For instance, in 2013, three Mail on Sunday reporters 3D printed a Liberator pistol on a 3D printer that cost less than $2,000, and boarded a Eurostar train with it. Since the gun was plastic, metal detectors weren’t set off and the men smuggled the disassembled gun by putting parts in each of their pockets. The Liberator was then reassembled in the train toilet cabin. This experiment proves how easy it is to smuggle deadly weapons, even to places with relatively high security, such as airports and train stations.
On the other hand, there are just as many people who believe that it is unreasonable to fear 3D printed guns more than traditional ones. According to them, 3D printed guns can’t even function well enough to become widely used – most of the time the gun just explodes in the user’s hands, breaks, or deforms.
Overall, it is true that the present state of desktop 3D printing doesn’t quite allow high-quality guns to be produced at home, plus it is a slow and complicated process. But it is not unlikely to change as the technology advances. The future might indeed be alarming, since AM technologies are evolving rapidly, with a wide variety of new materials being constantly developed and released. For example, metal 3D printing is 10-100 times faster – and relatively cheaper – than it used to be back when 3D printed guns first emerged. Therefore, some believe that 3D printed firearms will pose a threat in the future. The question is, how distant is that future?
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