As 3D printing becomes more robust and we expand our ability to print objects, we have seen the technology get used in interesting areas. From 3D printing food to entire houses, including self-replicating prototypes to be used on Mars, this technology has revolutionized many fields.
Speaking of revolutions, they’ve also been used to print guns, and that’s what we’re covering today: the controversial subject of 3D-printed guns.
Naturally, the ability to print guns has sweeping legal and political ramifications that will need to be addressed in the future. For some, it’s the purest expression of the Second Amendment. For others, it’s a problem if guns are made so freely available. For both, it seems that 3D-printed guns are inevitable.
Today, we’re going to look at whether 3D guns actually work, and what legal and safety repercussions these can have.
Do 3D Printed Guns Work?
Before we get into how 3D printed guns work, let’s establish what constitutes a 3D printed gun and why they seem to be unstoppable.
Printed guns do in fact work. Items can be printed that, when combined, can make a functional firearm that shoots projectiles.
Early designs would break or become inert after one shot, such as the Liberator, but now many models are capable of repeating fire. As 3D printing becomes more sophisticated, people are making CAD files based on actual gun parts, so they can 3D print their favorite weapons.
It all starts with the CAD file. Like with any 3D printed object, you need the CAD file to tell your printer what to do. From there, you just need to slot and screw some parts together to make the firearm.
You can’t effectively police the distribution of CAD files online, especially with the rise of anonymized, encrypted transaction technology like blockchain. That’s why we say they seem unstoppable.
People also print attachments and other components to add to their pre-existing firearms. These sidestep laws related to magazine capacity, suppressor possession, and barrel length requirements.
The History Of 3D Printed Guns
Way back in 2012, plans started for a plastic gun that could be downloaded and reproduced by 3D printer owners by a team called Defense Distributed. That was the Liberator, that we mentioned above.
From there, they also worked on AR-15-like rifles that were capable of firing up to 650 rounds before they become un-fireable. However, the technology has improved tremendously since, and now some companies have used industrial printers to make metallic pistols or titanium suppressors.
The Department of State quickly demanded that the instructions to their gun files be taken down from the team’s website. They called it arms trafficking and in violation of the Arms Export Control Act.
In response, Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson filed a lawsuit against the US government, accusing them of violating his and his compatriots’ free speech. The Department of Justice settled with him and acknowledged his right to publish schematics for 3D-printed guns.
As a response, multiple 3D-printed firearm schematics made their way online from many different suppliers. As we said, they have become more decentralized as time goes on. Where 3D printing guns are banned, it’s still difficult to track the people down and throw the book at them.
Most recently, we have the FGC-9. This is a 3D-printed 9mm rifle that was made by an anonymous German individual called JStark1809. He recently died of a heart attack shortly after a police raid, at 28 years old.
The death of JStark and unrelated charges brought against Cody Wilson are seen as evidence governments are terrified of 3D printing technology, among the more conspiratorial crowds.
Legal Response To 3D Printed Guns
So, now that we know what 3D-printed guns are and the history behind them, let’s take a look at their legality.
By federal law, the unlicensed manufacture of a firearm is permitted so long as there are metal components involved.
Several states have attempted to crack down on the creation and proliferation of guns made at home. Places like New Jersey demand you get a federal manufacturing license before printing the gun while also criminalizing the sale and possession of guns without serial codes. Others, like California, will let you print the gun so long as you apply to get a serial number attached to it.
The distribution of CAD files is different from printing the gun. In some ways, it’s perceived as being more dangerous since it allows anybody to download your files and create their own weaponry, expanding the proliferation of unregistered firearms. It’s also more controversial from a legal perspective.
After the DOJ settled with Cody Wilson, the matter was further debated by the Commerce Department. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a prior ruling attempting to ban the files from being posted online. However, the Biden administration then signed into law restrictions for ghost guns, which 3D-printed guns fall under.
While there may be an ideological drive towards 3D-printed guns by pro-2A and other anti-statist political groups, it’s important to note that it’s a worldwide movement. That’s why you should also consider the legality of 3D-printed guns in countries like Germany and the United Kingdom.
In Germany, the current gun law seems to suffice. At least, that’s the consensus of the German federal parliament as of writing. There’s no doubt that more legislation will appear if 3D-printed firearms become a common enough occurrence.
The same can be said for the UK. 3D-printed guns are de facto banned because the law outright bans the manufacturing of guns and parts for those guns. It doesn’t matter if you’re professionally machining your gun or 3D printing it – it’s all illegal in Britain.
So, there you have it! 3D printed guns do actually work, and as the technology progresses, they are becoming more sophisticated and advanced.
However, there is still a lot of uncertainty around the production of 3D printed guns, and whether they should even be made in the first place.
As 3D printing technology becomes more sophisticated and the way people exchange them gets harder, countries will need to figure out how to tackle the problem. Where some see the opportunity to build an honest gun culture, others will further restrict access to 3D printers and the software needed to make firearms.