New US Federal Rule Treats 3D Printed Guns Like Any Other Firearm

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In April 2022, President Biden expressed his determination to crack down on ghost guns, promising that “if you commit a crime with a ghost gun, expect federal prosecution.” Now, a new federal “Frame or Receiver” rule goes into effect to ban ghost guns took effect on August 24, 2022.

Under the new policy put in place by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), all firearms made by federally licensed firearms dealers and gunsmiths, including 3D printed guns, must be serialized to help reduce the number of unmarked and hard-to-trace ghost guns. In addition, the new rule reclassifies gun frames and receivers as firearms under the law. It requires federally licensed firearms dealers and gunsmiths to have serial numbers added to any unserialized guns and to run background checks before selling kits that contain parts needed to assemble homemade firearms.

According to the official document, the Department of Justice highlighted Congress’s concern about untraceable firearms based on intelligence reports from Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Counterterrorism Center, which state that untraceable firearms pose a challenge to law enforcement’s ability to investigate crimes and that “wide availability of ghost guns and the emergence of functional 3D printed guns are a homeland security threat.”

It also remarks that numerous criminal investigations and studies have demonstrated these concerns, while several states and municipalities have banned or severely restricted unserialized or 3D printed firearms. For example, in 2013, Philadelphia became the first U.S. city to ban making or owning 3D printed guns. In addition, gun 3D printing has been illegal in Massachusetts since 2018. Finally, this year, Maryland banned ghost guns and expressly prohibited making a ghost gun with a 3D printer when a minor is present.

Furthermore, the new rule explains that as technology progresses, privately made guns “are likely to make their way to the licensed community because firearms licensees are likely to market them for sale, accept them into a pawn, or repair them through gunsmithing services.”

Days before the new policy was in place, Homeland Security Today reported that extremists were urging followers to learn 3D printing to “clandestinely produce weapons that are useful to us” and “disregard the law.” CBS News also noted that many websites that sell ghost gun parts posted countdowns to the date the rule takes effect and have published “information for enthusiasts who want to continue building firearms at home.”

3D Printed Gun Use and Crime

Serial number or not, many argue that law enforcement should be worried about persons misusing guns instead of curtailing homemade weapons, which have been entirely legal for centuries. The argument is that anyone who chooses to use a gun to commit a crime will do so, no matter what the new rule states.

According to our research 3D printed gun arrests tripled in less than two years. Simultaneously, an investigation into 3D printed firearms during the International Conference on 3D Printed Firearms held at the Hague last May revealed that Dutch police have seen a significant increase in 3D printed weapons in the Netherlands and abroad. However, even though they see an upsurge in 3D printed gun confiscations, their study results still show that the supply of ready-to-use 3D printed firearms is currently small compared to the supply of conventional guns.

Historically, 3D printed weapons have played a limited role in actual criminal violence. Still, potential criminals and extremist groups have shown plenty of interest in them, and violent gang members have been arrested after attempting to print guns and parts or sell them. In fact, the increasing response to homemade 3D printed firearms by law enforcement and governments is a sign that they portray the threat as real and that violence with these weapons could escalate. After all, 3D printed guns are becoming more sophisticated and can now fire dozens of rounds without yielding under the pressure of a shot, as some of the first versions did.

Regardless, making a fully functional, 3D printed gun is not entirely straightforward and something many people will not attempt to do at home. 3D printing a weapon requires the user to have a 3D printer at home, and experts estimate that only one or two million homes own 3D printers. Moreover, only a minority of owners would use it for 3D printing guns, so the number of people creating these weapons is extremely low at the moment.

3D models for weapons, however, are a different story as hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have already downloaded tutorials for 3D printed guns already. Files for 3D printing a gun aren’t hidden on the dark web but can be downloaded from file-sharing websites. For example, in 2013, it took only two days for more than 100,000 users to download the files for the Liberator, the first 3D-printable single-shot handgun design. Although this could alarm many people, former ATF Special Agent David Chipman said during a Twitter Q&A with concerned citizens that, although several files had already been downloaded, he is more concerned about future files for 3D printable firearms that will be more lethal and intricate.

The Liberator 3D printed gun. Image courtesy of justinpickard on Flickr.

The Perceived Threat of 3D Printed Guns

Aside from the Liberator, other highly publicized 3D printed guns have been used. Also, online communities often share videos of 3D printed guns and gun parts that operate much like the real thing.

For example, back in 2013, Solid Concepts, a custom manufacturing company in California now owned by Stratasys, built the first entirely 3D printed replica of a .45 caliber M1911 semi-automatic that served as the U.S. military’s standard-issue sidearm for more than 70 years. Capable of striking a target bull’s-eye over 50 times, the metal gun was built using industrial-grade metal powder bed fusion 3D printers. This, however, is a whole new level of printer. So expensive (in the mid-hundred thousand range) that most individuals cannot afford one.

Instead, 3D printed guns are usually made of plastic with smaller 3D printers. This poses an entirely different risk to governments, basically that their undetectable nature. Not all metal detectors can pick up on plastic, but Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners proved theirs could when in 2018, they spotted a plastic 3D gun in a carry-on bag. Since August 2016, the TSA has detected a few 3D printed guns and gun components.

To fill this gap and make sure all 3D weapons don’t slip through security checks, security technology newcomer Liberty Defense is ready to beta test a new non-metal weapons detection system in airports and other commercial checkpoints that could make 3D printed weapons equally discernible as any other gun.

Even with the new ghost gun rule in place, people will not stop building their firearms at home. Instead, they will have to follow the existing new federal rule that says manufacturers of 3D printed guns will have to include serial numbers.

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