3D Printed Guns - A Controversial Development

A new movement to self-manufacture firearms via the use of widely available 3D printing equipment has recently been gaining attention amongst members of the public. Namely with an adventurous fellow from Texas named Cody R. Wilson.

Before we gallop ahead let’s talk about 3D printing first. Basically you begin with a computerised digital 3D image, self-designed or downloaded, which you then transform into an exact 3D replica using a plastic resin as your material. The 3D printer has essentially the same principle as your standard everyday printer yet its printing material is a quick drying plastic resin which is printed in many tiny successive layers.

This technology is not as new as you may think and has been employed widely within architecture, engineering and construction for quite a while due to its usefulness in creating detailed design models. It’s also used within dentistry, the medical industry and is now growing more popular in households due to its practicality for making random household items and knick knacks.

MakerBot 3D printer. Due out Q1 2013.
MakerBot 3D printer. Due out Q1 2013. | Source

Although the 3D printer was designed with good intentions in mind, one day a bright young gunsmith, named Michael Guslick, a Wisconsin engineer, had a eureka moment and realised that technically this printer could be used to easily develop plastic models of a more sinister nature; thus the 3D printed gun was born. This work was carried on and further publicised by a Texas law student- turned-inventor named Cody Wilson, who is soaking up much media attention and scrutiny at present.

Technically the whole physical piece is not printed, just a specific interior section of the gun which is the part of a gun that is regulated with a serial number associated with it. This piece is termed the ‘lower receiver’. The other components of the gun such as the casing can be bought freely in most states without background checks of identification and controversially in Cody’s words “even by a 12 year old”. When this model casing is received, the 3D printed lower receiver can be customised to fit the housing, thereby creating a fully functional firearm. The AR-15 has been a model of choice for Cody.

Example of a 3D printed lower receiver
Example of a 3D printed lower receiver | Source

Although this all sounds so relatively straightforward, one problem arises with the formation of the lower receiver in this printing manor, something that should be made of metal is now being printed in plastic. The actual plastic used to produce this piece can be modified and it’s hardness and durability improved but even with this, functional issues still exist as the piece suffers from damage due to recoil forces. Cody and his organisation named ‘Defence Distributed’, are currently searching for a durable and reliable material to provide optimal results.

Cody Wilson testing a 3D printed prototype
Cody Wilson testing a 3D printed prototype | Source

At present there seems to be a loophole in U.S. gun control laws as even though you have regulation of the lower receiver, there is technically no way of regulating the production of homemade versions of the lower receiver. These blueprints for the manufacture of this functional gun part can be legally posted online (if not in violation of a host site’s T&Cs) and subsequently downloaded for another individual to re-produce.

This open-access of enabling information to the general public raises a lot of questions when it comes to the current U.S. gun regulations as essentially anyone can now own an unregulated firearm, just once they have a 3D printer and internet access and live in a state that allows the sale of other necessary gun parts without background checks. Technically this 3D replication of a firearm does infringe on the ‘Undetectable Firearms Act, 1998’, which prohibits the manufacture, sale and distribution of firearm parts that are undetectable by airport metal detectors, but essentially this act cannot be stringently enforced due to the anonymous nature of 3D printing. This act also ceases on the 9th of December 2013 so if not renewed, 3D printed guns could become legal.

As we all know, recent events have emphasised the danger posed by public gun ownership. The Sandy Hook massacre sadly took away the lives of 26 innocent people, mostly children, and coincidentally the gun used in this horrific attack was the same gun that’s being used for Cody's 3D printed gun; the AR-15 riffle.

We can’t be sure that the production of 3D printed guns will increase future gun related crimes but one thing is certain, guns will become easier to get access to by many members of the public and worryingly these guns could be much less traceable. Although 3D printed guns generally contain certain metal parts, Cody and others are attempting to develop a fully plastic gun. If successful, these 100% plastic guns could pass through metal detectors undetected and could also be disposed of with relative ease. I guess the ultimate question we are faced with is; how will one regulate or stop the production of 3D printed guns because if not controlled, this issue may have lots of complications associated with it.

3D Printed Guns Documentary - VICE

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