Just over two years ago (on May 5, 2013 to be precise) the world’s first 3D-printed plastic gun was fired. It wasn’t quite a shot heard ‘round the world, but it did echo around the news media outlets. Most noted that 3D-printing technology could put government regulators at a disadvantage, but most news reports concentrated on the idea that undetectable plastic guns might be printed as easily as the photos of your last vacation.
The plastic gun that started the speculation was created by Cody Wilson, then a 25-year-old Texas law school student and self-proclaimed libertarian. He dubbed the odd-looking thing “the Liberator.” He posted its 3D-printing schematics online. The plans went viral and were downloaded by100,000-plus Internet users.
As Range365.com previously reported, the U.S. government quickly demanded the plans be taken down, and several groups are suing the government on First Amendment grounds. All that is certain to put this topic back in the news and to prompt many more to curiously download the 3D files, which, given how the Internet works, is still widely available.
So can 3D printers really allow someone to bypass gun regulations? Or worse, could they allow a criminal or terrorist to make plastic guns that won’t set off metal detectors?
Technically, yes. But realistically, it’s not likely. Even with an illegal all-plastic gun (federal statute requires a certain amount of metal in every gun—this law dates back to the plastic-gun scare that surrounded the introduction of the Glock pistol in the U.S.), alarms would still go off because ammunition contains metal. Also, others detectors used in airports, such as backscatter-X-ray or millimeter-wave-radar imagers, will still show a gun that is plastic.
Of course, a 3D printer could be used to make guns the government doesn’t know were manufactured. And they don’t just have to be ugly single-shots chambered for the relatively light .380 ACP, as the Liberator is. Guns from a 3D printer can also be made from metal.
Solid Concepts, a company based in an Austin, Texas, made news when they printed a steel Model 1911 semiautomatic pistol in 2013. To do this, Solid Concepts used a laser sintering process with powdered metals. They chose the Model 1911 because the design is so old it’s in the public domain.
Kent Firestone, vice president of additive manufacturing at Solid Concepts, says they used 33 17-4 Stainless Steel and Inconel 625 components, and decked it out with a Selective Laser Sintered carbon-fiber grip. They posted videos on YouTube of employees shooting its 3D-printed pistols:
“We’re doing this legally,” said Firestone. “In fact, as far as we know, we’re the only 3D Printing Service Provider with a Federal Firearms License. Now, if a qualifying customer needs a unique gun part in five days, we can deliver. It’s a common misconception that 3D printing isn’t accurate or strong enough.”
The industrial laser-sintering equipment used to make the gun is extremely expensive. Of course, costs are likely to go down as the technology matures, but right now it doesn’t take an economist to point out that it doesn’t make sense for a criminal to spend tens of thousands of dollars on industrial printing equipment to make a clunky single shot when they can find standard guns for sale illegally at a much lower cost.
When doing research for my book The Future of the Gun, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Agent Charles Mulham told me that guns selling illegally on the streets of New York City, for example, typically cost a hundred dollars more than retail.
Many gun manufacturers are researching the 3D-printing process, as they realize 3D printing has other applications. In fact, 3D scanners allow gun-parts makers, such as Brownells and Midway USA, to create and then print out rare gun parts that manufacturers can’t make a profit tooling up to make.