3-D Printed Guns: What You Need to Know

On August 1, Americans nationwide can hook up their 3-D printer, download a blueprint, and in a few clicks, produce a firearm. The new frontier of gun manufacturing came with heavy criticism from gun control advocates, but in a legal sense, very little has changed.

Jody Lynee Madeira, a law professor at Indiana University who teaches courses on the Second Amendment, told Newsweek that although the topic of firearms is sensitive, it has to be one people talk about because the more it's demonized, the more uninformed people are.

What's This All About?

While the issue of 3-D printed guns has dominated recent discussions, the battle began in 2013 when Defense Distributed owner and CEO Cody Wilson first published the plans online. However, the U.S. State Department told Wilson to take the plans for "The Liberator," an almost entirely plastic pistol, down, because they could be accessed internationally and be in violation of International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). ITAR regulates the export and import of defense-related articles and services, according to the Department of Commerce.

Wilson took the files down, which had already been downloaded a million times, according to CNN, and then sued the federal government in 2015. On June 29, a settlement between Wilson and the government was reached that enables the plans, files, and 3-D drawings to be put online. The documents are also exempt from export restrictions and the government agreed to pay about $40,000 of Wilson's legal fees.

"No one anticipated that the State Department would have settled the case in this way," Madeira told Newsweek, noting that she wondered why the government didn't request that Defense Distributed block IP addresses outside of the United States. "This could have solved a lot of the international security concerns and people internationally don't have Second Amendment rights and free speech rights. The rights argument is very different for people outside the United States."

President Donald Trump is a staunch Second Amendment advocate and many criticized his administration for allowing the plans to be made public. However, Second Amendment Foundation founder Alan Gottlieb, who helped with the case, denied that politics affected the settlement.

"We asked for the Moon and we figured the government would reject it, but they didn't want to go to trial," Gottlieb told CNN. "These were all career people that we were dealing with. I don't think there was anything political about it."

On August 1, anyone in the U.S. with a 3-D printer will be able to download the plans and make a firearm from their own home.

What you need to know about 3-D printed guns
A Liberator pistol appears on July 11, 2013, next to the 3-D printer on which its components were made. Defense Distributed was legally allowed to publish plans for 3-D printed guns on August 1. Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images

What Can Be Printed?

Even before Wilson won his lawsuit against the U.S. government, his company sold the Ghost Gunner, a machine designed to cut a firearm out of an aluminum object in a method called "subtractive manufacturing," according to the manual.

"3-D printing is great for prototyping, but Ghost Gunner creates objects equivalent to those traditionally available only through regulated commerce," the manual explains. Among the products that the Ghost Gunner can create are an AR-15 Lower Receiver, AR-308 Lower Receiver, M1911 Frame, and a Polymer 80 Glock Frame.

"The Liberator," is an entirely plastic firearm for which Wilson's company will provide the blueprints. Anyone can download the prints and send them to their own 3-D printing machine. Madeira explained that the printer would have to be big enough to print the biggest part of the gun and the process is very slow, taking hours to complete.

She explained that when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) tested the pistol made out of VisiJet plastic, it exploded, but when it was made with a high-quality resin, it performed like a regular gun.

How Many Rounds Does It Fire?

Unlike metal pistols that can hold 15 bullets in a magazine, plastic 3-D printed guns can only fire one or two shots before falling apart. Robert Spitzer, chairman of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland and an expert on the Second Amendment, told The Chicago Tribune that interest in a plastic, 3-D printed gun is mostly because they're "exotic" and "sort of a taboo thing," but that, at least for now, they're ineffective.

"This is a very expensive route to go just to get a piece of plastic that will only last a round," Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, told The Chicago Tribune.

3d printed guns what you need to know
Software engineer Travis Lerol takes aim with an unloaded Liberator handgun in the backyard of his home on July 11, 2013. Defense Distributed was legally allowed to publish plans for the Liberator on August 1. Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images

Madeira told Newsweek that although a 3-D printed plastic gun isn't as powerful as a metal or aluminum gun when made out of a high-quality resin, research showed the bullet could penetrate the human skull.

"An assassin who needed to use a one-shot gun—that would be perfectly safe for him —so long as he took someone out with the first shot," the law professor said.

What Are Legal Requirements for 3-D Printed Guns?

All guns must have at least one metal piece in them to be in compliance with the Undetectable Firearms Act, which was passed in 1988. Aside from including the metal piece and adhering to the state laws already put in place for firearms with regard to permits and where and when a person can carry a firearm, Madeira said there's no other legal requirement to 3-D print a gun.

Concern: A Plastic Gun Can't Be Detected By Security

The Undetectable Firearms Act requires that all firearms are able to be detected by an X-ray machine similar to the ones seen at airports, as well as detectable by a metal detector. Wilson's plans call for a piece of metal to be put into the firearm, although the piece doesn't affect the gun's performance. Since the firearm can operate business as usual without the metal piece, critics pointed out that the firearm setting off a metal detector is dependent on someone putting the piece in.

While it's a valid concern, Madeira explained that 3-D plans have already been downloaded so now that the technology is out there, now isn't the time to force it underground. Although people's initial reaction to fear is to clamp down on technology, she advocated for keeping the plans where people can see how innovation is advancing.

3d printed guns
Close-up view of the Liberator pistol in the hands of software engineer Travis Lerol on July 11, 2013. Critics of 3-D printed guns have tried to block Defense Distributed from being allowed to publish the plans online on August 1. Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images

Learning the concrete problems that need to be regulated when someone is able to use a plastic firearm to mow down a stadium of people is a lesson she doesn't want America to have to learn the hard way.

"That is perfectly possible, it's unusual, unlikely, but not impossible," she said, "and we'd pay a devastating price for that information."

As for the added concern that someone could set up a 3-D printer in their office to bypass security, Madeira explained that for most people, it's not feasible the way technology is today.

"It's noisy and takes so long to print a gun," she explained. "This is not something that could not even be done overnight and it's obvious at some point what you're printing."

Concern: With Guns Printed at Home, There's No Background Check

The issue of background checks remains a major concern. If a gun can be printed at home, there's no way to monitor if the person should be in possession of one. However, Americans are already legally allowed to manufacture a firearm for personal use at home without a license, according to the ATF.

Larry Keane, executive director of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, dismissed the concern about criminals using 3-D printers to make a firearm at home on the basis that it's costly and a predominately ineffective weapon.

"If you're a gang banger in Los Angeles, are you going to go out and spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy a printer to print a gun that doesn't work very well or are you just going to steal one?" Keane told The Chicago Tribune.

3-D Printed Guns
A man holds a Glock handgun during the annual National Rifle Association (NRA) convention in Dallas, Texas, on May 6. While critics of 3-D printed guns say the technology make it more accessible to criminals, others argue that a plastic firearm is ineffective for crime. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Madeira largely agreed with Keane because the process as it is now is extremely costly and difficult, so anyone who has ill intent is likely going to just get a gun on the black market instead of printing one at home.

She added that 3-D printed guns don't present any concerns that aren't already out there about firearms, including the concern of how to keep them out of the hands of people who should not have them.

"I think a lot of people are saying this is a new danger—there's certainly more availability," Madeira told Newsweek. "The same people who subvert the rules will always try to subvert the rules. Guns are already so easy to come by in many places that if you're really going to do something you're going to find a way to do it anyways."

Concern: 3-D Printed Guns Can't Be Traced

A firearm that is purchased at a store is required to have a serial number, which Madeira said is important because it gives law enforcement the ability to trace its ownership. However, 3-D printed guns, just like firearms that are made at home for personal use, are not required to have a serial number.

Another difference with regard to traceability between 3-D printed plastic guns and a firearm purchased at a store is that there's no unique rifling pattern on a 3-D printed plastic one. Madeira explained that the pattern, which is unique to the individual firearm, similarly to fingerprints on humans, is imprinted on the bullet so a ballistic expert can trace the bullet back to the gun that fired it.

A box of 9mm bullets and .223 rifle ammunition sit on the counter at Sportsman's Arms on April 2, 2013, in Petaluma, California. Each bullet is imprinted with a unique pattern when it's fired from a gun. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

To combat the issue of traceability, Madeira explained that California is proposing implementing a new regulation that would require even plastic firearms to have a serial number.

Where Do 3-D Printed Guns Go From Here?

While Madeira believes the fears people have about 3-D printed guns are warranted, in her mind, the real fear is about the future of the technology when plastic guns advance. Since innovation can occur at a rapid rate, she encouraged novel regulations to solve problems caused by novel technology.

"Currently, courts and legislatures—either state or federal—are so slow and cumbersome and so ill-informed, so I think they're not the best sources from which regulation can come," she explained.

However, the regulations Madeira think should be implemented aren't ones that force 3-D printed guns underground because, in her opinion, transparency is crucial. "The guns are going to be 3-D printed, it's just if it's going to be done transparently and we can see problems that arise," she said. "If we drive these underground on Reddit, the government won't see it."

Madeira likened the issue of 3-D printed guns to abortion in that restricting the behavior doesn't prevent it; it just makes it less safe. Another future decision that will have to be made is if websites are liable for faulty blueprints that cause firearms to explode.

Madeira told Newsweek that the era of 3-D printed guns has arrived, and now is the time to monitor technological advancements and establish regulations that keep people safe without squelching innovation.