3D printing has been around for over 30 years, and became a highly-utilized tool in the last 10 to 15 years. These machines have been used to create jewelry, toys, and action figures (just to mention a few). With the rise of open-source online blueprints, we’ve seen the uses and frequency of 3D printing skyrocket. Open access is also the mantra for computerized instructions used for printing 3D-printed objects, which are basically long lists of coordinates telling the printer what direction to move (left, right, forward, backward, up, down) as it deposits small quantities of heated plastic.
These innovative printers can create a broad variety of different tools, objects, figurines, and even weapons. Earlier this week, there was public outcry and legal action taken when a Texas nonprofit sought to distribute instructions for 3D printing plastic firearms, a ruling a federal judge smacked down by issuing a temporary 10-day ban. Defense Distributed, the Austin-based company behind the plans, reached an earlier settlement with the federal government last month that allowed the company to make blueprints for 3D-printed guns publically available for download. The blueprints were set to be released on Wednesday. However the federal judge’s motion went into immediate effect on Tuesday.
Defense Distributed filed a lawsuit against the State Department in 2015, alleging that restrictions on distributing the plans for the gun would be a violation of the First Amendment.
The cases against 3D-printed guns are understandable, with opponents of making blueprints publically available concerned about convicted felons and individuals with a history of violence having access to this information—and eluding a background check in the process. These are notable points. However there are some factors that might not necessarily have been considered when making these determinations.
While the following reasons primarily focus on different aspects of 3D-printed guns, one of the common themes one may see is the major constrains and deterrents that these weapons could potentially have for malicious individuals trace back to the actual design process. The effort required to create and assemble a 3D-printed weapon might ultimately not be worth the time.
Gun designers like Darren Booth from West Virginia say it takes about 30 hours to print all the plastic parts for an AR-style 9 mm pistol, along with another five hours of assembly and fine-tuning. As Booth said when he commented on the 3D printing process of a firearm, “It’s not just ‘click print’ and it pops out the other side.” Anyone with bad intentions determined to get their hands on a firearm could easily forego this tedious process and take an easier route, since regular firearms are easy to come by in the U.S. (legally and illegally).
This also includes easier ways to obtain a gun while avoiding traceability by government agencies. U.S. law allows individuals to build their own weapons if the firearm is kept for personal use. Parts can be ordered, finished, and assembled by anyone with basic know-how, without having to print every single piece. Anyone with some mechanical skill and machine tools can assemble an untraceable firearm using unregulated parts they can but without having to pass a background check.
Some don’t even think it’s ideal to craft a 100 percent 3D-printed gun because the plastic used is not strong enough to withstand a barrel or explosion from the bullet. Having said that, federal law requires all firearms contain at least 3.7 ounces of steel so they can be picked up by metal detectors. Some designers have still used metal parts when constructing 3D-printed guns like the barrel (which must withstand a high degree of stress during firing). Nonetheless, these qualities could further dissuade criminals or malicious individuals, making the 3D-printed version more complicated and prone to complications or damage than a real gun.
The actual design process can ultimately be what is preventing the bad guys from considering them more often.