Guns produced with 3D printers are the current hot-button issue in the realm of gun control.
Recent technology enables almost anyone with access to a computer and 3D printer to produce a mostly plastic firearm. Should this be allowed? Gun-control advocates and some legislators argue that 3D-printed guns are ideal for criminals and terrorists, saying they can evade metal detectors and can’t be traced because they lack serial numbers and elude registration requirements. Proponents point to First and Second Amendment freedoms and say the concerns are overblown at best, inaccurate at worst.
Nineteen states including Rhode Island, plus the District of Columbia, sued the State Department in late July to stop Defense Distributed, an Austin, Texas-based company owned by Cody Wilson, from publishing online the files that would allow people to make their own mostly plastic “Liberator” pistols using a 3D printer. The files were originally published online by Defense Distributed in 2013 and downloaded more than 100,000 times before the State Department ordered them to be taken down, and the case has been in a legal limbo ever since.
On Monday, Judge Robert S. Lasnik of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington state granted the plaintiff states a preliminary injunction, barring Defense Distributed from uploading the files to the internet. However, the files can be “emailed, mailed, securely transmitted, or otherwise published within the United States,” according to the court decision.
“I am pleased the Court found in favor of Rhode Island and the plaintiff states in recognizing the irreparable harm the states are likely to suffer should the proliferation be allowed of these 3D printed firearm designs,” Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin said in a prepared statement. “As noted in the decision, it is the untraceable and undetectable nature of these firearms that pose a unique and significant danger to public safety. This is an issue where technology has outpaced statute and regulation, and while the legal case will proceed on the merits, I strongly urge Rhode Island lawmakers to address the public safety concerns through legislative action.”
The Daily News interviewed locals with knowledge of firearms and engineers with experience in 3D printing to shed light on the issue.
How a 3D printer works
There are a few different kinds of 3D printing processes, but the most common is a process called fused deposition modeling, developed by the company Stratasys. FDM is the primary method used to make 3D-printed guns. Essentially a “computer controlled hot glue gun,” it extrudes plastic at a certain rate and certain pattern and layer by layer builds a solid object, according to Micah Reyes, a Newport resident and product design engineer.
3D printers range in price from $150 to $100,000, according to Stephan Vaast, a Newport resident with an engineering background and experience with 3D printers. It’s a technology that’s fairly easy to use, even for non-engineers, he said. But, “if someone has the files to print a gun it could still be fairly difficult to do. You would need to know your printer fairly well and it may take some trial and error to get the parts to come out right and to fit together properly. The quality/cost of your printer could greatly affect the difficulty or lack thereof. However once you have figured all that out it should be a fairly simple rinse and repeat process. For the metal part you will have to figure out a different way to make it,” Vaast wrote in an email to The Daily News.
Asked if 3D-printed guns are tarnishing the reputation of 3D printers — used largely by engineers but also tinkerers and teachers — Vaast said: “[It’s] just one of the hurdles this new technology is going to have to get through. People have been able to [make] machine guns at home for decades; they just needed access to a manual milling machine.”
Plastic, metal or both?
A common misconception is that the 3D-printed gun is entirely plastic and thus skirts the Undetectable Firearms Act, a federal law enacted in 1988 that makes it illegal to manufacture, possess or sell a firearm that can’t be detected by a metal detector. But the 3D-printed Liberator pistol does contain metal pieces.
“You need a lot of metal parts on a gun to make it functionable,” said Matthew Carvalho, owner of A&M Tactical on Coddington Highway in an interview at his gun shop. Regardless, the Liberator is a flimsy and dangerous gun for the user to shoot, he said. In fact, it can only fire a shot or two before it starts to disintegrate, according to Associated Press articles.
“A lot of these 3D-printed guns aren’t functioning firearms,” Carvalho said.
But even with metal parts, there are arguments that the 3D-printed guns still can be elusive.
“I think that these guns don’t have the safeguards,” said Joee Lindbeck, the state’s assistant attorney general and director of policy and legislation, in a phone interview with The Daily News. “They can elude security much more.”
In security checks, “it might not look like a firearm,” said former state Rep. Linda Finn of Middletown, president of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence. And so, even with metal pieces, “it might not be identified,” she said.
Legalities of DIY guns
Is it legal to make a homemade gun? And is it illegal for 3D-printed guns to have no serial numbers?
According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives website, a license is not required to make a firearm solely for personal use. “However, a license is required to manufacture firearms for sale or distribution,” it says.
Homemade firearms are permitted for use at the Newport Rifle Club in Middletown, but when it comes to 3D-printed plastic guns, club President David Jones said he’d have to consult with the executive board to determine if it would be all right for someone to shoot one there. Safety is the priority at the club, Jones said, and 3D-printed guns have not been proven safe to use.
Some states require that homemade firearms be serialized, but most, including Rhode Island, do not, Jones said. According to 80percentarms.com, a website that sells certain parts and accessories for home-built firearms, California is the only state that requires all completed firearms to have a serial number applied by Jan. 1, 2019. It’s possible and legal to assemble a firearm with no serialized parts, Jones said, so long as the firearm isn’t sold and is restricted to personal use.
General thoughts on the issue
Swift legal action to suppress the online dissemination of the 3D-printed gun files was necessary, according to Lindbeck, because of the rapidity of technological advancement. “Technology and the law never keep pace at the same time,” she said.
Steve Matsui, a Middletown resident and 20-year gun owner, said the state’s move to join the multi-state lawsuit to suppress the files was emotionally charged, and Carvalho agreed. “It’s feel-good legislation,” Matsui said.
“It’s almost like the new flavor of the week,” Carvalho said. “It’s creating a frenzy.”
“If you take a good, hard objective look at gun-control efforts, what you find is there’s an awful lot of misinformation,” Jones said.
Though 3D-printed guns are less efficient and less reliable compared to other guns, “they can still kill somebody,” Finn said. “That’s really the bottom line.”