In the early hours of Sunday June 12th, a lone gunman armed with a SIG Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle burst into the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida and over the next several hours murdered 49 people and injured another 53. The dead were primarily Latinx members of the LGBTQ community, the shooter presumably motivated by homophobia or religious extremism. It was both the deadliest act of violence directed at the LGBTQ community and the deadliest mass shooting in US history. Even with the seemingly endless string of mass shootings that seems to have desensitized us to gun violence, the Orlando massacre is hard to ignore. Once again our nation’s collective negligence when it comes to sane and fair firearm safety and regulation has been highlighted, and it has once again started a national conversation about the need for gun control.
One hopes that the horror of Orlando was a big enough shock to our system that the conversations that it starts may actually accomplish something of value this time around. Congress, at least some of it, seems to be trying to get something done, last week with a filibuster in the Senate and just yesterday starting a historic sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, as is typical of any debate involving guns, it seems that the two most extreme sides of the issue seem less interested in having reasoned debate than they are in seeing who can behave in the most ghoulish way possible. This is nothing new, this is a debate that we have been having for decades, but something that I’m seeing more of in the last few years is people on both sides invoking 3D printed guns in their arguments.
When Cody Wilson and his company Defense Distributed released 3D printable files for the Liberator gun online back in 2013, an entirely new side of the debate over gun regulation began. 3D printed guns are often portrayed as a looming, terrifying boogeyman by extreme gun control advocates, while at the same time they are often held up as proof by pro-gun and open carry advocates that regulation or legislation won’t solve the problems of gun violence in our country. One side is selling fear of easily created guns that can be printed off like photocopies overrunning our street, and the other side is pretending that because a gun can be made in someone’s home then there is no reason to restrict any kind of access to guns period.
I really have very little patience for intellectual dishonesty, especially in political conversations where facts are deliberately obfuscated to suit a specific political agenda. Not only are both arguments about 3D printed guns inherently dishonest, but they’re relying on the fact that most people hearing those arguments don’t know how 3D printers work. So as we sit amidst yet another debate about gun regulation I think it is important to present some facts about 3D printed guns that both sides rarely share. It is important that we make very clear how 3D printed guns are made, what they are capable of and how much of a threat they actually pose to the general public. If you’re a regular reader of 3DPrint.com then one would presume that you have a basic understanding of how a 3D printer works. But I am going to write this for a more general audience that may not be as familiar with the specifics of 3D printing technology because I want everyone to be able to understand exactly what is and is not possible when trying to 3D print a gun. While 3D printing technology is certainly sophisticated, the full capabilities of 3D printing are often wildly misrepresented.
The most common type of 3D printing is the process called Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), and this technology is the primary method used to make the handful of working 3D printed guns that have been made. The process works by slicing a digital file called a 3D model into dozens, sometimes hundreds of thin, on average about .1 mm thick, layers. The 3D printer will then use robotic precision to replicate each of these individual slices on a printing bed using melted thermoplastics, one layer printed on top of another. The result, hopefully, will be a complete physical copy of the digital file. Depending on the size of the part, the type of material being used and the model of 3D printer, this process can take several hours.
Because an FDM 3D printer is working with liquefied plastic, there are limits to what type of objects can actually be printed. For one, a 3D printer cannot create a complex mechanism like a functional gun all in one piece. Instead, each separate component of the gun needs to be 3D printed individually and then later assembled. Additionally, if the shape of any of these individual components has an overhang of more than about 45 degrees, then in order for the part to be 3D printable it needs to include some kind of support structures that will then need to be removed. Even then, the geometries of some parts will simply be too complex to 3D print using an FDM 3D printer. These limitations make 3D printing a functional gun very time consuming and difficult, and there is a reason that there has really only been a few truly viable fully-3D printable gun designs.
The type of materials used with an FDM 3D printer are generally referred to as thermoplastics. They are a type of plastic that become pliable or a highly viscous liquid when heated, and yet when cooled will solidify without becoming weakened or chemically altered in any way. We use thermoplastics in just about every consumer product that you’ll find in your home, from the casing to your remote control to the mouse that you’re using with your computer to the case on your smartphone to the dishes in your kitchen. There are dozens of different types of thermoplastics that have been specifically formulated to work with an FDM 3D printer, but the two most commonly used materials are Polylactic Acid (PLA) and Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS).
PLA tends to be softer, so it is not as strong or durable as ABS, however it has more “give” and is more pliable. A part made from PLA will probably bend and deform before it breaks or shatters. While ABS is much harder and stronger than PLA, once it reaches its limits it tends to crack and break rather than deform. The reality is that neither material really lends itself particularly well to something as complex as a gun. 3D printed guns are usually made with ABS, but even with the stronger material you probably will only be able to fire a single shot before a part breaks or fails and needs to be replaced. The explosive force of firing a bullet is simply too powerful for most thermoplastics to survive.
While there are several hybrid gun designs around that incorporate 3D printed components with real, metal gun parts, let’s be honest no one is going to build their own guns to commit crimes. Because these hybrids contain metal parts, they are useless for sneaking past any security and they are bulkier so they would be much more difficult to hide. And again, why build a hybrid gun when you can just go buy a new one? And it isn’t even as if it is currently illegal to build your own guns using traditional methods. There is actually a large community of custom gun makers who have the machinery and skill to make any firearm that they could possibly want, and there are not a lot of mass murderers who have used handmade firearms. Using 3D printed parts to build your own guns isn’t any different than milling them yourself from aluminum. In fact, a 3D printer and a CNC mill are two very similar technologies.
Yes, metal 3D printing technology is real, and yes it can be used to 3D print the parts for a fully functional firearm. There are several different metal 3D printing processes and technologies, but what they all have in common is price. A metal 3D printer will cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, so using it to 3D print a gun isn’t going to be anywhere near affordable. In fact, a few years ago a company actually did use a metal 3D printer to make a gun, and Solid Concepts (now part of Stratasys Direct and no longer in the gun business) sold them for $11,000 a piece. Once again, if you’re a criminal looking to commit a crime with a gun, how likely is it that you are going to spend 11 grand to make your own gun rather than go buy one for under $300 from a gun show? Just because it is possible doesn’t mean that it is very likely to happen.
What I hope all of this illustrates is that making a 3D printed gun is not easy, it is not quick, it is not cheap and it does not result in especially dangerous or deadly weapons. Not only is it cheaper to just buy a real gun in the United States, but it is also probably a lot faster to go buy one, even with any state-mandated waiting periods. Even in countries like the UK, Japan or Germany, which have very strict gun control laws, 3D printed guns have never been used to commit a serious crime or used as a viable alternative to illegally purchased traditional guns. Australia is on the lookout for 3D printed guns, targeting them with legislation, but even there it’s a precaution, not a reaction. If you’re looking for a gun to use in a crime, there are simply far too many other options available before you even get to using a 3D printer. And even then, it isn’t as if you can buy a basic 3D printer and print yourself some guns in a few hours. While you don’t need to degree to use a 3D printer it does take some specialized skill that takes time to cultivate and develop.
This is the reason that despite the files for the Liberator being available for three years now it hasn’t been used in any crimes, and to my knowledge no one has ever been hurt or killed with one. That doesn’t mean that I’d like to be shot with a 3D printed gun, of course it could be used to hurt or kill someone. But so far the people who have the skill and resources to make 3D printed guns are not the people who we need to worry about hurting or killing anyone. While there is plenty of room to debate how much we should try to control or regulate 3D printable firearms, the fact is at this point they just aren’t an issue. Frankly, anyone who brings up 3D printed guns while discussing gun control or curbing mass killings is doing so as a derailing tactic, not because they are relevant to the discussion.
It is simply not possible to look at the statistics of gun deaths in our country and ignore the fact that we have a problem with gun violence that needs to be dealt with. While I certainly have my opinions, I can’t definitively tell you the best way to curb mass killings without subverting our Constitution or the rights of lawful and responsible gun owners. I just don’t know, and as a nation we need to find a common middle ground that we can all live with. But what I can tell you, and what I do know, is that 3D printable guns are not part of the problem and you shouldn’t let anyone convince you that they are. The type of guns chosen by people who commit heinous crimes and mass killings are chosen for their ability to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible, and I hope that at the very least we can all now agree that no one is going to get a weapon like that from a 3D printer. What are your thoughts on this topic? Please share them with us in the 3D Printed Weapons forum over at 3DPB.com.