Loaded Issue

Do You Fear 3D Printed Guns? What You Really Need To Know!

3D printed guns

To most of us, a 3D printed gun poses a threat. Learn about how 3D printed guns are handled in your country and if you have to fear them.

Lawmakers around the world have taken notice of 3D printed guns. Regardless of intention, their efforts to stifle the use of 3D printed firearms have given rise to a number of difficult questions. Should someone with the files for a 3D printed gun be charged with the same crime as someone that actually has the gun? Has the media sensationalized the rise of 3D printed guns? What’s the best way to regulate 3D printed weapons? Do these untraceable, homemade 3D printed firearms pose a true threat to society?

To answer these complex questions, let’s take a look at the recent cases and legislation involving 3D printed guns. After a brief introduction, we will look at how the world deals with this loaded issue.

Please note that most countries have laws on gun control, but no policies on 3D printing guns at all. But for legislators, this is a topic to be dealt with in the future.

3D Printed Guns: What You Really Need To Know

3D Printed Guns: Overview

Defense Distributed, run by Cody Wilson, wants to see 3D printed guns treated the same way as regular weapons in the US (image: Marisa Vasquez)

The world’s first functional 3D printed gun was designed back in 2013 by Cody Wilson, founder of the Texas open source gunsmith organization Defense Distributed. The 3D files for this one-shot pistol were subsequently released to the world. They were sparking an unprecedented controversy that still looms over the 3D printing community to this very day.

Most 3D printed guns are based off previously existing designs. Most of them are freely available to download. Aside from the metal firing pin, the rest of the gun’s parts can be produced via 3D printing. Even bullets can be 3D printed, although they are considered inferior to standard rounds.

It’s quite easy to produce a plastic firearm with the proper 3D files and desktop printer. But these homemade 3D printed guns are far from reliable when it comes to functionality. In fact, police testing has proven that 3D printed guns could endanger the shooter as much as anyone else (more on this later). A firearm produced with ABS material could potentially explode in the hands of the user when shot. Softer PLA will likely cause the parts bend or deform after firing.

Most of the 3D printed guns that have surfaced thus far are pistols. But even semi-automatic weapons have been released by Defense Distributed – and confiscated by police.

As 3D printed gun blueprints are distributed by the internet, they have been found across the world, from Australia to Japan, Europe to the Americas. These makeshift firearms have found their way into the hands of police, criminals, and libertarians alike.

3D Printed Guns: United States of America

The 3D printed components that make up the Liberator.

If you’re going to take a look at the controversy surrounding 3D printed guns, it only makes sense you begin in the United States. After the files for the Liberator were downloaded over 100,000 times in two days, the US Department of State strong-armed Defense Distributed into taking the model down. This demand has sparked an ongoing legal battle between the techno-anarchist and government.

After the Liberator was deemed in violation of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), Wilson filed a federal civil suit against the State Department. To this very day, Wilson is still fighting for his right to publish his 3D printable firearm files. In September 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected his preliminary injunction request, claiming that national security concerns outweigh Defense Distributed’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

Even though the State Department has succeeded to keep 3D gun files illegal in court, Wilson’s design and a handful of others have seeped through the cracks of the internet. There have been a number of instances where 3D printed guns have been confiscated by police the US.

In August 2016, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at the Reno–Tahoe International Airport found a 3D printed gun and five .22-caliber bullets in a passenger’s carry-on bag. The year prior, two felons in Oregon were caught with an assault rifle that had a 3D printed lower receiver attached to it.

It is illegal under the Undetectable Firearms Act to manufacture any firearm that cannot be detected by a metal detector. 3D printed guns are usually made from PLA or ABS and are therefore not allowed in the US, as legal designs for firearms require a metal plate to be inserted into the printed body.

Some states that allow firearm ownership have taken up the issue of 3D printed guns themselves. For example, California passed a law that requires a 3D printed gun to be properly approved and registered. But with relatively lax gun laws in a number of US states, 3D printed guns have proven to be a more glaring problem in Australia, which has stricter anti-gun legislation.

3D Printed Guns: Australia

Gold Coast police discover 3D printed automatic weapons.

No country has had as much legal trouble with 3D printed guns as Australia has. Their strict firearm legislation has limited the access to traditional weapons. So some have turned to 3D printing to help circumvent the law.

In November 2016, Gold Coast police discovered a highly sophisticated weapons production facility that used 3D printers to produce machine guns. A month later, a collection of 3D printed firearms were seized in Tasmania, but the manufacturer was let off with a warning. Perhaps Australia’s most concerning case, police recently linked the discovery of 3D printed guns in Melbourne to the Calabrian mafia.

To combat the rise of 3D printed guns, New South Wales passed a law equating possession of 3D gun files to actual possession of a 3D printed gun. Some of Australia’s Senate members have their doubts about 3D printed guns being an imminent threat, and that further restrictions would hinder 3D printing innovation overall. The country’s Green Party has been a staunch opponent to 3D printed guns, citing the growth of the technology as proof that 3D printing will be capable of producing more dangerous weapons soon.

In 2013, New South Wales police tested out a 3D printed handgun. They were able to fire a bullet 17 centimeters into a standard firing block, but the plastic exploded when the bullet was discharged.

In 2015, the county amended its firearms act to include a clause that says “A person must not possess a digital blueprint for the manufacture of a firearm on a 3D printer or on an electronic milling machine… [or face a] Maximum penalty: imprisonment for 14 years.”

But the situation in Australia is trickier than most. The glaring amount of confiscated 3D printed weapons seems to be linked to the country’s strict laws, making traditional metal firearms much more difficult to come across than they are in the US. It’s important to note that while plastic printed guns pose a minimal risk, most Australian legislators fear the increasing accessibility and affordability of metal 3D printers will come back to haunt them.

3D Printed Guns: Europe and United Kingdom

Contrary to Australia, the strict gun control laws in Europe have reduced the threat of 3D printed guns. Still, when you look at the regions that downloaded the Liberator files the most, you’ll find that most of the leading countries are located in Europe. During the two initial days Wilson’s infamous 3D printed gun was available online, it was downloaded the most in Spain, followed by the US, Brazil, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom has been particularly concerned with the rise of 3D printed guns, calling them a threat to national security. In 2013, the UK Home Office introduces stricter regulations on 3D printed guns, making it highly illegal to create, buy, or sell 3D printed guns or gun parts in Great Britain.

Thus far, the threat of 3D printed guns in Europe has mostly been confined to television: The Italian crime TV series Gomorra recently depicted a RepRap 3D printer being used to create a 3D printed gun.

3D Printed Guns: Rest of the World

Yoshitomo Imura’s 3D printed ZigZag pistol.

The 3D printed gun controversy isn’t just restrained to the western world. Shortly after Wilson’s design surfaced, Japanese citizen Yoshitomo Imura designed and printed a six-shot revolver known as the ZigZag. The government ended up sentencing him to two years in prison for 3D printing guns and also instructing others.

In Singapore, possession of a 3D printed gun is punishable by death, even if it’s an air pistol.

Although they’re the most focused on, 3D printed guns are far from the only weapon that 3D printing can be used to manufacture. Concerns have also mounted in the Middle East over the possibility that ISIS is using 3D printing to produce bombs.

3D Printed Guns: Conclusion

There’s no denying that 3D printed guns are popping up across the world. They are getting more popular in Australia and US. But are these makeshift weapons really the treat the media portrays them to be? Ultimately, the answer seems to be both yes and no.

The current lack of access to personal metal 3D printing makes producing a functional 3D printed gun solely with plastic difficult. But for most firearm components, this emerging technology could soon become a viable option for gunsmiths, gun advocates, and even criminal organizations. Also, the materials you can 3D print with are getting better and better.

At this point, there have been no violent crimes attributed to a 3D printed gun. But still, a more realistic threat will likely arise when access to metal 3D printing increases in the near future.

At the moment, it’s easy to dismiss anti-3D printed gun legislation as overreaching and embellished. But that doesn’t mean that various laws preventing the production and sharing of 3D printed guns don’t have any merit. Just as with any other youthful technology, 3D printing will continue to improve and become more affordable.

Needless to say, lawmakers throughout the world have taken note of this potential threat, and most are trying to restrict the 3D printed gun movement before the technology progresses too far.