3D Printed Guns Are Getting Better, Legal Debate Still Lingering in the US

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Masked behind an online retailer site claiming to sell wall hangers, 30-year-old Timothy John Watson from Ranson, West Virginia, is now facing up to 10 years in prison after being accused by Federal Prosecutors of selling 3D printed machine gun parts without a license to followers of the extremist, anti-government Boogaloo movement in the U.S. The devices, called “drop-in auto sears”, convert semi-automatic AR-15 rifles to fully automatic machine guns. Often, homemade untraceable 3D printed guns or gun parts have been quite controversial, with several states trying to limit sharing of CAD source code that show users how to make them.

The debate has been raging ever since the creation of the world’s first single-shot 3D printed plastic gun called the Liberator. Capable of firing a .380 caliber bullet, the gun was printed in 2013 using fused deposition modeling (FDM) on an industrial-grade Stratasys Dimension SST by American libertarian Cody Wilson. Even though a license is not required to make a firearm solely for personal use, the law prohibits manufacturing firearms for sale or distribution without going through the proper regulatory channels. However, the right to make guns for individual use dates back to the colonial period. Any efforts to regulate or even ban 3D guns must “satisfy constitutional scrutiny under both the First and Second Amendments,” according to Josh Blackman, Professor at South Texas College of Law Houston.

Still, several recent events are pushing President Joe Biden to take executive action to reduce gun violence by regulating concealable assault-style firearms, such as the weapon used in the March 2021 shooting at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado, which killed 10 people. This incident followed a series of seven mass shootings that took place just days before, including attacks on three spas in Atlanta, where eight people were killed. Although no 3D printed guns or gun parts were used in any of these attacks specifically, the White House is exploring whether the president has the authority to take action on firearms made using 3D printers as well as on imported guns.

While speaking with members of the press at the Delaware Air National Guard Base on March 26, 2021, Biden said, “We’re looking at what kind of authority I have relative to imported weapons, as well as whether or not I have any authority to — these new weapons that are being made by 3D equipment that aren’t registered as guns at all, there may be some latitude there as well.”

As someone who has pushed for gun safety measures since he was in the Senate and as Vice President during the Obama administration, Biden has a few options, such as closing background check loopholes, stopping the proliferation of unregulated and untraceable ghost guns, and expanding community-based violence intervention programs. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is “working on a couple of levers” to ratify new gun safety measures. One is through Congress, particularly on two background check bills that have moved their way through the House and could tighten gun sales regulations.

President Joe Biden’s plan for gun reform. Image courtesy of BidenForPresident Campaign.

Blueprints for 3D printed firearms are widely available online. Discussion groups on internet forum communities, like Reddit and Quora, often disclose information on original sites where users have released 3D printable gun files; they can also usually be accessed via P2P file sharing. One of the biggest concerns has been that 3D guns have a plastic composition that metal detectors will not pick up, and, like with most ghost guns, officials will have a difficult time tracing who it belongs to. However, Larry Arnold, legislative director for the Texas Handgun Association, said in 2020 that the gun would be detected if the plastic is dense enough. Even if it isn’t, the bullets are made of metal and show up in a detector.

Ten years ago, an entirely 3D printable gun had limited utility but still fired one shot before the ammunition’s sheer pressure would break it. Today, the materials available for FDM printers, commonly used for printing guns, have become increasingly more durable. Up until 2019, it seemed the technology had matured, and 3D printers were making pretty good receivers for semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 and other gun parts.

Then, in early 2020, Deterrence Dispensed, a group of 3D-printed gun advocates, posted the files for a functional assault rifle called the FGC-9, short for “f*** gun control 9mm.” The estimated tooling costs for the completed gun are at $500 and could take between one and two weeks to build. Most of the firearm is 3D printed, including the upper and lower receivers, pistol grip, and stock. Only the barrel is made of metal, which means it can be spotted by metal detectors, making this the only reason they are not banned, according to media site Slate.

What is also getting a lot of attention is that the online files offer detailed instructions to help anyone build their own FGC-9, even without any previous experience. A Deterrence Dispensed designer known only as “Ivan The Troll” told The New Republic via encrypted email that the pro-3D printed gun organization plans to “continue developing and disseminating its files as long as there’s a public demand for them.”

Prototype of the FGC-9 made by designer JStark1809. Image courtesy of JStark1809/Deterrence Dispensed.

Striking a similar tone, at Iowa State University, another group of 3D printed gun enthusiasts organized a meeting to educate fellow students on 3D printing firearms and “home gunsmithing.” Coordinated by the student-led organization “Students for 2A,” which advocates for Second Amendment rights, the presentation would not encourage illegal activity but states that it will disclose how to get started in gun 3D printing. However, students on campus still upset after the Colorado shootings said receiving an email to discuss guns just 24 hours after the attacks “should not be allowed.”

Whether 3D guns are a threat is still a big discussion issue, with some experts saying that they are not as much of a problem as the more accessible ghost guns, which are considered much more lethal. According to Greg Blonder, Professor of Design and Product Engineering at Boston University‘s Mechanical Engineering Department, 3D printed guns are just “a diversion” pulling away from the big concern of full metal, high precision ghost guns that can be purchased as a kit and assembled in just 15 minutes.

These so-called “ghost guns” or “80% lower build kits” are self-assembled from parts purchased online or at gun shows. Moreover, the parts that are assembled are not classified as a firearm by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). For that reason, they can be legally sold with no background checks and without serial numbers to identify the finished product. This loophole, says Blonder, can lead to a perfectly operational pistol or AK-47 assault rifle, much faster than you can print it. Worst of all, they have been used to kill people.

Ghost guns have emerged as a weapon of choice for violent criminals. For example, in California, ATF statistics revealed that 30% of all guns now recovered by agents in the state don’t have a serial number and cannot be traced in criminal investigations. A report by The Trace even found that law enforcement agencies across California are recovering record numbers of ghost guns.

“None of these ghost guns being recovered by the ATF are plastic weapons, mainly because it wouldn’t make sense to use a plastic gun when you can get a perfectly good ghost gun,” said Blonder. “For anyone interested in gun regulations, the concern is not plastic. I worry that because 3D printed guns are new and intriguing, they could distract from legislation on ghost guns. Of course, someone could use a 3D gun to make a point, but it’s not an existential threat today. Instead, we should stay laser focused on legislating ghost guns.”

These are CAD file examples of 3D-printed gun files. Image courtesy of Office of Attorney General Mark R. Herring.

The debate over 3D printed guns is far from over. Recent technological developments have allowed individuals to 3D print firearms and firearm parts with relatively inexpensive machines, which have turned legislators’ attention towards the technology. Although, so far, a great deal of evidence of the proliferation of 3D printed firearms has mainly been reinforced by people seeking to make a political statement, legislation to regulate 3D printed firearms in the US could be introduced sooner rather than later.

In fact, in mid-March 2020, member of the Illinois House of Representatives Angelica Guerrero-Cuellar already introduced a bill to ban home-built firearms, specifically 3D printed ones, as well as criminalizing the distribution of computer code containing designs that can be used to create them. With many in government claiming they wish to curb, not regulate, the harmful effects of untraceable, and potentially undetectable firearms, we could see the debate over 3D printed guns moving forward this year.

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