Top 13 In 2013, #3: 3D Printed Guns Excite, Scare

Additive manufacturing is already being used in rocket sciences, medicine, and cars, but one Texas-based group of 3D printing and gun enthusiasts gained a great deal of notoriety early this year by demonstrating early versions of 3D-printed guns

Between December 9 and December 21, we'll be counting down the 13 biggest stories on throughout 2013. From pig problems (see below), to Tesla's on fire, and being held captive in China, we'll be looking into just why these stories resonated with readers here and elsewhere. For the full list, updated daily at 1:00pm EST until the 21st, visit the Top 13 In 2013 page.

Amid all the speculation about gun control, and the associated sales extravaganza, another firearms development proved exciting to some, and terrifying to others: guns “printed” using additive manufacturing. With 3D printing becoming increasingly popular in the consumer and enthusiast space, it was only a matter of time before some enterprising individual decided a gun was the next frontier.

Additive manufacturing is already being used in rocket sciences, medicine, and cars, but one Texas-based group of 3D printing and gun enthusiasts, which has formed into the (pending) non-profit organization Defense Distributed, gained a great deal of notoriety early this year by demonstrating early versions of 3D-printed guns that were capable of firing a few rounds before blowing into pieces on the sheer forces alone.

On its website, the group lays out its manifesto: “To defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms as guaranteed by the United States Constitution and affirmed by the United States Supreme Court, through facilitating global access to, and the collaborative production of, information and knowledge related to the 3D printing of arms; and to publish and distribute, at no cost to the public, such information and knowledge in promotion of the public interest.”

In another video, the group’s figurehead, Cody R. Wilson, said: “Defense Distributed’s goal isn’t about armament — it’s more about liberation. It’s about living in a world where you just download the file for the thing you want to make. As the printing press revolutionized literacy, 3D printing is in its moment.”

Many were taken aback or simply stumped by this stance, and the videos Defense Distributed soon released showing the weapon, now called the Liberator pistol, being fired. At the same time, the group announced that the CAD files for the pistol were freely available on their DefCAD search engine for open-source design resources.

Days after releasing the CAD file, it was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, clearly indicating interest, even among those who didn’t have access to a 3D printer themselves at the time. And it worried government officials, who said the guns would be effectively untraceable — without a background check, even known gun criminals could download and print the files, and even if a gun happened to be used in a crime, there was no chance of tracing its origins. And because they are plastic, there’s little chance they get detected while passing through metal detectors at airports or other high-security areas.

In October, British police held a major press conference to announce that they had seized parts from a 3D-printed gun, including a trigger and a magazine, in a raid against suspected gang members. "These could be the next generation of firearms and a lot more work needs to be done to understand the technology and the scale of the problem," said Detective Inspector Chris Mossop of the British force’s organized crime unit.

Many quickly pointed out that the piece in question were likely spare parts from a Makerbot Replicator 2 3D printer — a rather embarrassing misstep for the Manchester police. They did insist that the people raided were gang members, and that the very fact they owned a 3D printer was cause for concern. They said: “What this has also done is open up a wider debate about the emerging threat these next generation of weapons might pose. The worrying thing is for me is that these printers can be used to make certain components of guns, while others can be legitimately ordered over the Internet without arousing suspicion. When put together, this could allow a person to construct a firearm in their own home.”

As the year continued, readers continued to return to the topic of 3D-printed and plastic guns, particularly as Congress began to debate legislation surrounding the issue. Two Democratic senators, Chuck Schumer of New York and Bill Nelson of Florida, called for a ban on plastic guns, while officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told press that these weapons presented a particularly difficult challenge for them.

Under current law, anyone manufacturing a gun of any type must include a certain amount of metal so that they could be detectable — even the Liberator pistol came with a small piece of metal to comply with that law. But with CAD files openly available on the Internet, there was no individual requirement to include that lawful metal.

December 9 was the expiration date of an old law that banned undetectable plastic guns, and while those two Democrats continued to push for a more in-depth definition of “plastic firearms,” only the extension was approved. As of late that night, the manufacture of undetectable plastic guns would be banned for another 10 years.

And while it settled a certain small element of what some argue to be a major safety and law enforcement issue, 3D printing technology is only going to get better and more ubiquitous throughout 2014 and in the remainder of the decade. There likely won’t be any new bans in the near future, considering the NRA is weighing in heavily on the issue, but a 3D-printed gun has yet to cause any harm, either in a crime or in self-defense. There’s no telling if the laws will change after that inevitable future, or if the laws will even matter in the kind of open CAD landscape that Defense Distributed dreams of.