As of Wednesday, it will be legal to download instructions on how to make a plastic handgun with a 3-D printer. The instructions for the Liberator are being published on a website run by nonprofit Defense Distributed.
Do-it-yourself firearms such as the Liberator have been nicknamed “ghost guns” because they don’t have serial numbers and are untraceable.
On the Defense Distributed website, people will be able to download plans for building the Liberator as well as files for an AR-15 lower receiver, a complete Beretta M9 handgun and other firearms. Users also will be able to share their own designs for guns, magazines and other accessories.
The high-end 3-D printers needed to make such weapons cost thousands of dollars and may be too expensive for most people. But that doesn’t ease the concerns of those who think guns made from 3-D printers are a really bad idea.
What sparked the controversy?
The single-shot pistol was made almost entirely out of ABS plastic — the same material from which Lego blocks are made.
Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson — then a 25-year-old law student — posted designs for the gun online so that other people could duplicate it.
Defense Distributed began a self-described Wiki weapon project in 2012 but until its May 2013 video had only reported being able to make plastic, interchangeable parts for firearms — not entire weapons.
Wilson has emerged as the face of the group based near Austin, Texas, although many of its members, including the owners of the 3-D printer the group uses, have chosen to remain anonymous.
Why did the US government intervene?
It accused Wilson of potentially breaching International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which regulate the export of defense materials, services and technical data.
In essence, officials said someone in another country that the United States doesn’t sell weapons to could download the material and make guns.
The spokesman added that the US government is currently reviewing plans to transfer oversight of firearm exports from the State Department to the Commerce Department, which would eliminate the International Traffic in Arms Regulations requirements that had initially prevented the uploading of the gun production plans.
What other legal challenges are in play?
In a filing, a federal judge in Texas faulted the groups for failing to prove they were actually legitimate parties to the case.
State attorneys general have been fighting to keep 3-D-printed guns out.
At the hearing, Defense Distributed agreed to block Pennsylvania IP addresses for a few days until a more formal hearing could be held.
Meanwhile, 21 state attorneys general sent a letter on Monday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, urging the government to withdraw from the settlement.
“As the chief law enforcement officers of our states, we believe the settlement terms and proposed rules are deeply dangerous and could have an unprecedented impact on public safety,” the letter said. “In addition to helping arm terrorists and transnational criminals, the settlement and proposed rules would provide another path to gun ownership for people who are prohibited by federal and state law from possessing firearms.”
What about lawmakers?
Plastic gun designs got around this restriction by containing a metal block that could be removed and that the firearm could function without.
On Wednesday, Nelson tweeted, “The administration’s decision to allow people to post blueprints online about how to make a deadly 3D printed gun at home is inexplicable — and it’s dangerous! I’m filing a bill ASAP to severely restrict the publication of these detailed plans on how to make a 3D printed firearm.”
On Monday, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York also took to Twitter to comment on the issue, “We’re just days away from dangerous ghost gun blueprints being shared freely online & the admin has taken NO ACTION to protect our communities. Proud to join @SenBlumenthal & @SenBillNelson in unveiling the Untraceable Firearms Act. This bill must pass before it’s too late.”
What are the arguments against the guns?
Critics fear the DIY guns could easily fall into the wrong hands and create safety concerns because they’d be invisible to metal detectors.
Top prosecutors in New York and Los Angeles blasted the settlement as an “unconscionable mistake.”
“Allowing this exemption from federal rules would be an unconscionable mistake, making it all-too-easy for anyone with a dangerous history — including terrorists and domestic abusers who cannot pass a background check — to download files and print a functional gun with 3-D printers available to any consumer. This decision undermines the critical public safety laws that prosecutors enforce day in and day out,” the statement said.
Guns from 3-D printers will make it easier for terrorists and people who are too dangerous to pass criminal background checks to get their hands on guns, said Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Actor and activist Alyssa Milano wrote that the settlement meant “felons, domestic abusers, terrorists, those adjudicated too mentally ill to own guns and any other person unable to legally purchase firearms will be able to print one at home.”
How effective are the guns?
One gun made using a plastic called ABS-M30 fired a .380-caliber round without failing all eight times when it was tested, ATF officials said, describing it as “a lethal weapon.”
Another pistol made from a plastic called VisiJet didn’t perform as well, with video showing it exploding into a dozen plastic shards when fired.
“A firearm produced with ABS material could break apart or even potentially explode in the hands of the user when fired. Softer PLA will likely cause the parts to bend or deform after firing,” it said, referring to a flexible 3-D printing material.
So why bother fighting to make them legal?
It’s about the right to bear arms, its advocates say.
On Monday, Defense Distributed founder Wilson tweeted, “I am now being sued by at least 21 state attorneys general. If you want your Second Amendment online, THIS is the fight.”
Wilson has made no secret of his disdain for the US government in particular and all governments in general. (Defense Distributed makes and sells components with names such as the Cuomo and the Pelosi to tweak politicians such New York’s governor and the House minority leader who support gun control efforts.)
“For me, it’s important as a symbolic political statement,” Wilson told CNN in 2013. “And that statement is something like, ‘No, the future we imagine is one of personalized manufacture and access to objects. … In this future, people will be able to make guns for themselves.’
“That was already true, but now it’s been demonstrated in yet another technology.”
For Wilson and his supporters, the ability to build unregulated and untraceable guns will make it much harder, if not impossible, for governments to ban them.