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3D Printed Guns: Unstoppable, Undetectable, Untraceable

Updated on October 29, 2014
3D printed guns provide new security issues for law enforcement.
3D printed guns provide new security issues for law enforcement. | Source
A 3D Printer can print solid objects made of plastic or metal in three dimensions.
A 3D Printer can print solid objects made of plastic or metal in three dimensions. | Source

Jennifer Garner

12-11-13

English 10H

3D Printed Guns: Unstoppable, Undetectable, Untraceable

The arrival of three-dimensional (3D) printers and their ability to create any physical object from raw materials throws a wrench in the gears of gun regulation. Everyday civilians, without performing a background check, will be able to produce guns that are invisible to metal detectors and untraceable. This will create many challenges for the law enforcement officers trying to catch criminals. On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, 3D printers have the ability to revolutionize manufacturing and provide breakthroughs in science and technology research. It’s clear there is a need for a means of regulating 3D printed guns, but because of the overarching benefits this new technology can bring, the prohibition of 3D printers should not be the answer. Instead, we should ban the production or possession of 3D printed guns and by doing so address the security issue without restricting the groundbreaking potential of 3D printers.

To understand the root of the gun problem, it’s important to understand what 3D printing is, how it works, and how widespread and revolutionary it can become. According to tech expert and attorney Peter Jensen-Haxel in his article “3D Printers, Obsolete Firearm Supply Controls, and the Right to Build Self-Defense Weapons Under Heller” in the Golden Gate University Law Review, 3D printers work through a process called “additive manufacturing,” by which material is deposited layer by layer, eventually building up to a finished product (448). He further explains that it is more efficient than traditional “subtractive manufacturing,” in which material is chipped away to create the final product, because it doesn’t waste any material (Jensen-Haxel 450). You can think of 3D printers as working similarly to printers that deposit ink onto a page, only the nozzle moves both up and down as well as left and right, and it deposits a binding material rather than ink.

Their versatile method of manufacture enables 3D printers to create just about anything. According to “When Copyright Can Kill: How 3D Printers are Breaking the Barrier Between “Intellectual” Property and the Physical World,” by Matt Simon of Pace University School of Law, which appeared in the Pace I.P., Sports and Entertainment Law Forum in 2013, 3D printers can make everything from buildings to food to living tissue to themselves (Simon 63). In essence, they can replicate themselves part by part. As long as the final product (or a piece of it) is small enough to fit inside the printer and the raw material and 3D digital designs are available, it can be created in a 3D printer.

You might wonder how this is different or improved from traditional manufacturing methods beyond the better material efficiency. The simple answer is that it enables civilians to create specific, customized products quite cheaply, and the practical applications of this technology are limited only by imagination. For example, the article “3D Printing Basics” on a website devoted to 3D printers, 3ders.org, explains that surgeons could print “mockups of parts of their patient’s body” which would be exact replicas of the patient’s tissues, which they could then operate on for practice (“3D Printing”). Architects and engineers could print prototypes and working models for new inventions or buildings in order to experiment with and further develop them. Chemists and biologists could print models of molecules or organisms to see how they physically interact or are structured, and the list goes on.

But 3D printers aren’t just useful for experts; they have the potential to revolutionize manufacturing for everyone. Although heavy-duty metal printers are still quite pricey, some simple 3D printers are already selling for under $1000, and they will continue to drop in price as the technology improves (Jensen-Haxel 452). Consequently, someday soon you and I will be able to afford a 3D printer and could use it to make everyday items like toys, jewelry, art, clothing, small objects, and mechanical tools (“3D Printing”). Ordinary people will be able to create at home any small, simple products they would normally buy from a store, using only the cheaper raw materials.

However, 3D printers and at-home manufacturing can also potentially create some problems. As Jensen-Haxel puts it, “one area that will be caught completely off-guard [by 3D printing technology] is federal firearm regulation” (448). A gun can be created using a 3D printer, which can print all the various individual pieces in a tough plastic material. This means that guns could be created entirely outside the regulation of the federal government. Attorney Jensen-Haxel explains that US gun regulations were designed with the assumption that guns and their components are created solely in industrial factories—and “the advent of [3D printing] means that this foundational assumption is now fundamentally flawed” (448). In essence, we have no regulations regarding the manufacture of guns that provide for the existence of 3D printers and the ability to create guns at home. It simply isn’t provided for in the law, which was written before this technology was even dreamed of.


A 3D printer at work.
A 3D printer at work. | Source

Not only do we not have a law against the production of 3D printed guns, but their design files have the potential to go viral on the internet. Jana Winter, writer for Fox News, in her article “Homeland Security Bulletin Warns 3D-Printed Guns May be ‘Impossible’ to Stop” states a company called Defense Distributed was the first to successfully 3D print a gun “whose only metal parts are the bullets and a small firing pin” (Winter). Effectively, almost all of the parts for the gun came from a 3D printer. And they didn’t keep it to themselves; according to The Blaze reporter Liz Klimas, in her article “3D-Printed Gun Designs ‘Gone Dark,’’” from May 2013, Defense Distributed uploaded the design files for the gun, named “The Liberator,” to the internet for public use (Klimas). This enabled people to download the digital design files for the gun, which would allow them to make their very own “Liberator” using a 3D printer.

Their generosity was cut short by government interference. After a few days and a couple hundred thousand downloads, Defense Distributed was ordered by the US Department of Defense Trade Controls to remove the design files from their website (Klimas; Winter). According to Klimas, the government claimed ‘control of the information,’ stating that some of the information on their website might be in violation of International Traffic in Arms Regulations policy (Klimas). But the move may prove a day late and a dollar short; hundreds of thousands had already downloaded the file and could upload it to other filesharing websites. One can’t help but acknowledge how ineffective this ban, which was the US government’s first attempt to regulate 3D printed guns, will prove to be.

Trying to stop the distribution of the design files is not an effective way to respond to 3D printed guns. For one thing, preventing online filesharing is next to impossible. In his article “US Government Attempts to Stifle 3D-Printer Gun Designs Will Ultimately Fail,” writer for The Guardian James Ball explains how difficult it will be to enforce the ban, stating, “as almost any music company will testify, stopping online filesharing by banning particular sites…is roughly akin to stopping a tsunami with a bucket” (Ball). The battle has been fought and lost against illegally shared music, and these gun designs will be just as impossible to regulate. Homeland Security seems to realize this; referring to Defense Distributed, their intelligence bulletin states that even if federal legislation banned the 3D printing of guns, ‘online distribution of these digital files will be as difficult to control as any other illegally traded…files’ and concludes that ‘limiting access may be impossible’ (Winter). The US government may have removed one gun design from one website, but more will take its place. Fighting the spread of 3D printed guns by trying to prevent the spread of their design files is not an effective solution.

However ineffective their efforts may be, the authorities are not unnecessarily worried about 3D printed guns. There are concerns over the fact that 3D printed guns are, as The Blaze reporter Klimas writes, “undetectable by metal detectors and X-ray machines” due to their plastic composition (Klimas). Tech expert Jensen-Haxel explains that many regular guns use plastic for components such as the trigger, grip, and frame, while parts like the barrel of the gun are made of metal (455). Although initially 3D printers were limited to making similarly external, unstressed parts, guns can now be made almost entirely out of printed parts. Recall that Winter stated “the Liberator’s” “only metal parts are the bullets and a small firing pin” (Winter). Thus fifteen of sixteen pieces of the actual gun of “the Liberator” were made using a 3D printer (Klimas). This means that 3D printed guns are now made almost entirely of plastic.

Metal detectors and X-ray machines, popular methods of screening the public for guns, are not equipped to detect plastic weapons. Some have already demonstrated this alarming fact; Georgi Kantchev of The New York Times writes in her article “Authorities Worry 3-D Printers May Undermine Europe’s Gun Laws” that people have already “evad[ed] airport-style security scanners with 3-D printed plastic weapons” (Kantchev). Two British reporters were able to smuggle a 3D printed gun onto a train from London to Paris, and a reporter from Israel snuck a 3D printed handgun into the Israeli parliament where the Prime Minister was giving a speech (Kantchev). Essentially, 3D printed guns could potentially provide a determined killer with a way to get a deadly weapon into a “secure” area such as an airport, train station, courthouse, or other government building or means of transportation.

The good news is they may not be undetectable for long. Terahertz scanners, a fairly new method of security screening implemented in airports since 2007, provide a way to detect even plastic weapons. Rebecca Boyle of Popular Science Magazine writes in “Tiny, Convenient Terahertz Microchips Can See Inside Objects” that terahertz scanners can detect all kinds of molecules, so when aimed at a human with a hidden weapon, they show the weapon even if it’s not made of metal (Boyle). Think of it as a relatively noninvasive (doesn’t require touching) way to look inside someone’s clothing or purse to see what they’re carrying. As Boyle writes, “they could theoretically detect illicit drugs or explosives,” but they also provide a way to detect 3D printed weapons made entirely of plastic polymers (Boyle).

This game-changing technology might not be that far off from widespread use. According to an article in Law Enforcement Today, “Terahertz Scanner and the 4th Amendment Implications” by Bruce Bremer, MBA, the New York City Commissioner of Police announced in January 2013 that they will be implementing terahertz scanning technology on the streets in the near future to detect concealed weapons on civilians (Bremer). Some are concerned that this kind of scanner will be misused by police officers because it can see inside clothing, something that normal street-side security measures such as cameras cannot (Bremer). They are also concerned that it will violate the individual’s right to bear arms (Bremer). It is a little extreme to start scanning people on the street, peering through their clothes to check for hidden weapons. On the other hand, terahertz scanners are our only method of detecting plastic weapons short of a pat-down.


A 3D printer can print individual parts made of plastic which can then be assembled together.
A 3D printer can print individual parts made of plastic which can then be assembled together. | Source

I would argue that terahertz scanning should be implemented, but only as a replacement for X-ray scanners in airports, courthouses, and other places where security is an issue and individuals are already screened for weapons. Luckily, terahertz technology is being miniaturized and improved by research labs such as Berkley National Laboratory so it can be viably used as a security scanner (Bremer). It won’t be too long before even plastic guns are no longer invisible. Therefore, by the time 3D printers are cheap enough for run-of-the-mill criminals to afford, when 3D printed guns might become a real problem, terahertz scanning technology will hopefully be advanced and widespread enough to combat it.

Not only are they undetectable to an extent, but 3D printed guns may prove untraceable. Attorney Jensen-Haxel writes that “[3D] printers [are] able to produce the only regulated piece of a firearm, the frame,” which is the only part of a gun that is regulated by the government using background checks (448, 457). Making a gun out of printed parts means not only is the gun relatively undetectable, but it has no regulatory trail involving background checks – so anyone could make one. Furthermore, according to Winter of Fox News, a Homeland Security bulletin acknowledges that ‘3D-printed firearms can be made without serial numbers or unique identifiers, hindering ballistics testing’ (Winter). Basically, even if a 3D printed gun was discovered after it was used to commit a crime, it would be nearly impossible to determine where the gun came from or who printed it. But the gun won’t always be found; after the commission of a crime, a plastic 3D printed gun could be melted down to its raw material and reused to create a new gun, leaving no evidence of the original weapon or the crime it committed. Consequently, even the best crime-solving gurus would have a hard time pinpointing a suspect using traditional ballistic evidence. Furthermore, any trial to convict a suspect would have a weaker prosecution case simply by the lack of a definitive murder weapon.

3D printed weapons may prove widespread, undetectable by metal detectors, and untraceable, but the future of US regulations regarding 3D printed weapons is uncertain. However, it is quite clear that any and all legislation proposed to help fight 3D printed guns should not focus on banning or restricting 3D printing as a whole. It’s important to keep in mind that this technology can be used for very good things as well as bad. There are many security issues rising from the very real possibility of 3D printed guns, but this doesn’t mean that, to stem their production, we should prevent the public from using 3D printers. The Guardian writer James Ball recognizes that some might want to “ban or regulate 3D printers themselves” in response to the threat of 3D printed weapons (Ball). This is a potential solution to the problem, but an oversimplified one that could have widespread negative effects.

As Ball goes on to point out, “to [ban 3D printers] is to stifle a potentially revolutionary technology in order to address a hypothetical risk” (Ball). While the risk of 3D printed guns is no longer hypothetical, it would be detrimental to try to prevent the growth of 3D printing. The technology can provide a truly infinite number of benefits to our society, such as medical advances due to the ability to print living tissue, organs, and prosthetics, and scientific or technological advances due to printing models or prototypes, or perhaps even computer chips. Therefore it would be beyond disadvantageous to stem their use to address a single con, the weapons issue. I was very disturbed when I heard about the 3D printed gun issue not only for the potential gun problems, but because I was afraid it would potentially mean the end of 3D printers. Being interested in technology like I am, I know how earth-shattering the implications of 3D printing could be, and I would hate to see their potential go to waste because of gun violence. The prohibition of 3D printers could potentially set science and technology research back by decades, especially when compared to countries that are utilizing their revolutionary manufacturing techniques to their fullest potential.

It would be wrong to outlaw 3D printers, and furthermore it would be problematic. Ball cleverly addresses the issue of defining a 3D printer for legislation, and how it would have to be defined “broadly enough for a law to be effective, but narrowly enough so that enforcing the law doesn’t take out half of the equipment used in every day manufacturing” (Ball). This would prove very difficult to do, and he concludes that banning 3D printers altogether is “likely a futile ambition” (Ball). Not only would it be futile, but a very backwards move that would set America behind other countries in such areas as science, technology, and economics, because it would prevent us from making potentially revolutionary leaps and bounds in manufacturing, research and development.

A much better idea would be to focus on outlawing the manufacture or possession of the weapons we’re actually worried about. We already have regulations regarding undetectable weapons which would apply to 3D printed guns. Jamie Chandler of US News, in his May 2013 article “How to Regulate 3-D Printed Guns,” writes that the regulation of undetectable weapons “falls under the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, a law that makes the manufacture, distribution, and importation of guns undetectable by X-ray equipment a federal offense” (Chandler). This would make 3D printed weapons illegal because they lack large metal components and therefore aren’t picked up by X-ray. However, this law was renewed in 2003 but will expire at the end of 2013 (Chandler).

Some are pushing to renew the act; House Representative of New York Steve Israel is concerned with 3D printed guns, stating on his website in April 2013 that he “is calling for a renewal of a revamped Undetectable Firearms Act that includes the ban of 3-D printed, plastic high-capacity magazines” (“Plastic Guns”). But according to Chandler, it is unlikely that it will be renewed again, or that the bill modernizing it will pass; he states the “attempt by the Senate to pass universal background checks died on the vine, and President Obama's larger push to revamp gun control laws has lost steam” (Chandler). Essentially, we’d have no regulation of undetectable printed weapons.

It’s possible, then, that we should focus on introducing brand new legislation against 3D printed weapons specifically. However, as the Homeland Security bulletin that Winter summarizes states, ‘proposed legislation to ban 3D printing of weapons may deter, but cannot completely prevent their production’ (Winter). While this is true, it would deter any law-abiding citizens from the temptation to create one, which would potentially help prevent criminals from acquiring one. With fewer of these guns being produced, fewer could be used to commit acts of violence. On the other hand, Jensen-Haxel argues that the 3D printing of guns, “when exercised by law-abiding citizens, may be protected under the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller” (448). He states that the court case might be “interpreted to support a general right of individuals to manufacture their own firearms” and that it also “appears to protect not just the right to possess firearms but also the right to acquire them” (Jensen-Haxel, 474). Therefore, it could be that outlawing the printing of weapons or possession of a printed weapon is unconstitutional.

Although the constitutionality is unclear, there is already some movement in the direction of banning the 3D printing of weapons. In May 2013, Dan Lieberman of the California Senate’s website wrote that Senator Leland Yee announced that “[w]hile [he is] as impressed as anyone with 3-D printing technology,” he intends to “introduce legislation that will…stop the manufacturing of guns that are invisible to metal detectors and that can be easily made without a background check” (Lieberman). In essence, the bill would prevent people from using 3D printers to make guns that are “untraceable and anonymously-produced” (Lieberman). It would ban the production of 3D printed guns without banning 3D printing itself, which is precisely the direction that legislation should take. Thankfully there are some voices in the government advocating this proactive action.

Even more hopeful is the example that New York City sets for the rest of the country on this front. The article “NYC Introduces Bill to Outlaw 3D Printed Guns” on Infowars.com by Steve Watson states that in June 2013 the New York City council passed a bill that would “make it a crime ‘to create any firearm, rifle, shotgun, or any piece or part thereof’ using a 3-D printer” (Watson). This legislation was the first passed in the US that makes it illegal for anyone to print parts of a gun. As Watson writes, “[e]ven licensed gun makers would have to notify police and go about registering any printed firearm within 72 hours” which means that even those approved to make and sell weapons would have to register these otherwise untraceable guns, thereby making them traceable (Watson). This marks the first step toward a legislative solution to regulating printed guns and preventing the otherwise anonymity of their users. It is also the best outcome to shoot for (no pun intended) because it addresses the banning of 3D printed guns without restricting the revolutionary potential of 3D printers as a whole.

Jensen-Haxel may have a point, however, when he argues that the manufacture and possession of weapons may be protected by the constitution (Jensen-Haxel 448). Consequently, we will have to see how the legislation in New York City is received by the public and how the court cases that may arise are handled by the courts with regards to Second Amendment rights to bear arms. It is possible the law will be upheld on the grounds of only targeting weapons that, by their very definition, pose a more significant threat to the public than regular metal guns, which are regulated and detectable.

3D printed guns need to be regulated to help prevent crime, but banning 3D printers would only set us behind other nations in research and development. Although it will soon be possible for civilians to create at home undetectable and untraceable firearms, it is also possible for us to prepare for their existence. We will need to adapt to their presence by updating our gun regulations and screening protocols. New York City sets an example for the rest of the nation to follow with its police department’s proactive adoption of terahertz scanning technology and its new regulations on printed weapons. These measures will not entirely solve the problem of 3D printed guns, but they will help significantly in the fight against gun violence. 3D printed guns may pose many challenges to law enforcement and policymakers in the near future, but it’s a challenge we’re prepared to face.

Works Cited

“3D Printing Basics.” 3ders.org. n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.

Ball, James. “US Government Attempts to Stifle 3D-Printer Gun Designs Will Ultimately Fail.” The Guardian. 10 May 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Boyle, Rebecca. “Tiny, Convenient Terahertz Microchips Can See Inside Objects.” Popular Science. Popular Science Mag., 11 Dec. 2012. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

Bremer, Bruce. “Terahertz Scanner and the 4th Amendment Implications.” Law Enforcement Today. N.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

Chandler, Jamie. “How to Regulate 3-D Printed Guns.” US News. 11 May 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Jensen-Haxel, Peter. “3D Printers, Obsolete Firearm Supply Controls, and the Right to Build Self-Defense Weapons Under Heller.” Golden Gate University Law Review 42.3 (2012): 447-495. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Kantchev, Georgi. “Authorities Worry 3-D Printers May Undermine Europe’s Gun Laws.” The New York Times. 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Klimas, Liz. “3D-Printed Gun Designs ‘Gone Dark’: Wiki-Weapons Project Removes Designs After Gov’t ‘Claims Control of the Information.’” The Blaze. The Blaze Mag., 9 May 2013. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Lieberman, Dan. “Yee Announces Legislation to Stop 3-D Printable Guns.” Senate.ca.gov. 7 May 2013. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.

“Plastic Guns.” Israel.house.gov. 7 April 2013. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.

Simon, Matt. “When Copyright Can Kill: How 3D Printers Are Breaking the Barriers Between “Intellectual” Property and the Physical World” Pace. I.P. Sports & Entertainment Law Forum 3.1 (2013): 60-97. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Watson, Steve. “NYC Introduces Bill to Outlaw 3D Printed Guns.” Infowars.com. 15 June 2013. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.

Winter, Jana. “Homeland Security Bulletin Warns 3D-Printed Guns May be ‘Impossible’ to Stop.” Fox News. 23 May 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

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