When I tell people I have a 3D printer, I get a lot of questions. Among the top 5 is “Can you 3D print a gun”?! In the US it has always been legal to make your own gun, and anyone with a drill press and some plumbing parts can make a working zip gun. 3D printed guns fall under this legal provision, provided they have a chunk of steel big enough to set off a metal detector.
Now thanks to 3D printing, it is possible to 3D print a function gun out of plastic without the technical skills required to make a metal gun. In 2013 Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed (DD) published the digital files for his Liberator pistol. After that police departments and media tested the stealth of the gun by bringing them through metal detectors into public meeting to demonstrate their possible “terrorist” applications. The US government ordered the files removed from Defense Distributes website, but a simple search of any file sharing site will reveal the files.
The Fear of Terrorism?
Recently the Daily Mail (DM) a UK based paper, published a quick and disjointed article about 3D printed guns. DM clams (without proof) that ISIS may be interested in 3D printed weapons. It attacks Cody Wilson and his plans to try and release a 3D printed AR-15 assault rifle in April. It should be noted that DD has already published the files for the AR-15 lower. The printed lower does not have a government serial number, meaning that it is not registered with the government (a so-called “Ghost Gun”).
The rest of the DM article jumps around, but suffice to say it hypes a lot of fear by combining ISIS and 3D printed guns.
Fear of Ideas
DM wrote this puff piece without any knowledge of 3D printed guns. The Liberator Pistol was never made as an assassin’s tool. DD made it as a thought experiment, legal challenge, and engineering challenge. Shooting a single .38 cal bullet out of snub nose barrel, it also requires additional barrels to fire again. The process of loading the Liberator is slow. On top of that, the barrels have a tendency to explode in the shooters hand. All of these are not properties that ISIS or other assassins consider desirable in a weapon.
For the AR-15 lowers mentioned in the article, they are more of a concern, but not by much. They too were made as a thought experiment and legal / engineering challenge. They do circumvent the laws of the US, because they do not have or require a serial number. 3D printed lowers have made progress in their ability to fire hundreds of rounds. Online groups like FOSSCAD have produced improved versions of this lower that fire higher calibers.
Reality of 3D printed guns
The strength and performance of these plastic lowers is dodgy at best. They require extensive tinkering to fit the trigger group inside of them, which takes a lot of time for uncertain performance. The 3D printed lowers take hours to print and even more time to assemble into a firing gun.
There is no proof that terrorist are actively seeking 3D printers for nefarious purposes. When you look at the time, risk, equipment, and skill involved in 3D printing a gun, it just does not make sense for a terrorist to use one. Any terrorist wanting to cause harm will want a stable, predictable working gun. 3D printed AR-15 lowers simply cannot deliver on that requirement. Any terrorist will find a legal or illegal way to get a working gun that is ready to fire. Terrorist networks also have connections to arms dealers that can easily smuggle weapons into any country.
With current 3D printing technology and materials, the public does not have a lot to fear from 3D printed guns. What DM is afraid of is the idea of a 3D printed gun. DM is afraid that anyone who does not want to deal with the legal restrictions of making and owning a gun can circumvent the draconian measures in place in the UK. DM is afraid that everyone can easily find these 3D printable guns.
Ultimately DM is not afraid of ISIS using 3D printed guns, its afraid of the idea of a 3D printed gun in general.
The original article can be found here:
Defense Distributed can be found here:
FOSSCAD can be found here: