3D Printed Firearms are Already Here… But Could They Lead to Disaster?


The debate is explosive, but it’s here. 2018 has been a year with a large number of reports that have mentioned significant advancements and changes in the physical, but also legal aspects of 3D weapons. When 3D-printing was first envisioned by its successive creators, did they ever stop to think about the more. . . darker aspects that it could potentially bring about? With the advent of 3D-printing, the world watched in awe as various unrelated fields made use of it in its applications; building materials and entire houses have been printed out in construction, incredible chocolate-based designs have been printed out in the culinary arts, and in medicine and transplantation – entire organs (!). 3D-printing was even regarded by some as the next base of a new industrial revolution. None of us really doubt these significant achievements brought about by this new form of printing, but the question that lingers in the back of the mind remains: can it also be used as a force for destruction? The only twist in this debate about 3D- printing is that this destructive force has already arrived, and those feared weapons have already been printed out. . . by regular civilians. A cause for concern? Or will be able to say enough is enough before it spirals down the abyss of chaos?

We should start our journey in the heart of the inferno of debate. A country that maintains an amendment in its constitution that grants any citizen the right to bear arms – The United States. The Second Amendment of the US is as follows: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”. But did that amendment, ratified in 1791, take into account 3-D printed firearms? That’s where some of the debate appears. While it was ratified in 1791, a year after visionary Ben Franklin’s death, I highly doubt even he could have looked this far into the future. 

Back to the present. An American court, earlier in the year, put the brakes on the possibility of completely legally downloading drawings to weapon parts that can then be printed with a 3D printer. The decision came just hours before the drawings were to be published online. In the US, there has been a legal dispute between government and gun-lobbyists about CAD (computer-aided design) drawings for 3D printers. In 2013, the open-source hardware organization, Defense Distributed, released STL files (a stereolithography file format) for the now infamous weapon The Liberator as it was downloaded over 100 000 times before the US Department of State could stop it. Since then, the company has struggled to get the legal right on its part. Eight states have appealed against the decision to grant the company Defense Distributed permission to publish 3D weapon plans on its website. Judge Robert Lasnik says publication of these plans could pose a great danger to American citizens. Is he right?

The plans essentially allow you to print parts of a gun that is relatively simple to construct. Many are worried that these weapons are missing serial numbers and can not be traced. In addition, they are difficult to detect when manufactured in plastic and do not give rise to metal detectors. An obvious location where this may pose a serious risk is in public places and airports. This is partially true; the making a weapon in a plastic material makes it more difficult to detect it in some cases, but not all. The Liberator, for example, needs bullets (some of which are nowadays largely composed of polymers) and this small mass of metal that is too weak to ring an airport metal detection gantry. However, metal detection is not the only way to locate a weapon. X-ray scanners for baggage detect these plastic weapons when they are too bulky to be hidden by clothing. It should also be noted that detection is more difficult when passing a weapon in parts rather than as a complete construction. In May 2013, two British journalists managed to pass security checks at St Pancras International Station with this exact Liberator model disassembled in parts and concealed under the clothes, which could later be assembled on the train. 

The Liberator – A Real Threat?

So what’s the weapon we’re talking about? One of the plans published by the Defense Distributed company in 2013 is called “The Liberator” and consists of various 3d-printed parts that can easily be linked to what appears to be a functioning weapon. The Liberator consists of 15 plastic parts, but also a metal nail together with a firing pin which are the only nonplastic components. About 20 hours of printing is required to print the plastic parts one by one. After which it will be necessary to assemble them again. An industrial 3D printer does not allow the direct printing of the firearm as was explained earlier. Cody Wilson, owner of Defense Distributed, has said that his motive was never the mass distribution of weapons to people, but has always been driven by political issues such as the right to carry weapons. A firm believer in the Second Amendment? Defense Distributed, which does not hesitate in its opposition to tougher weapons legislation in the United States, has been central in this debate. 

A recent event concerning Defense Distributed came on June 29 this year when they were given the right to publish the plans online, starting August 1, 2018. Immediately after the decision, the company celebrated, among other things, publishing the text “The age of the downloadable gun formally begins” together with the date for publication on its website. But eight courts opposed the decision the day before and managed to get a temporary stop for the publication. Even Donald Trump made a vague tweet about this showdown in August.

What did he mean? The courtroom files later showed that he did not seem too positive to the idea. A federal judge, on the 31st of July, made it clear that the untraceability aspect of the gun was a security hazard and thus, the release was stopped. What will happen now is unclear. Regardless, it’s not difficult to find plans for 3D weapons online but the technical legalities of the case continue to be debated in courtrooms and elsewhere. As technology continues its journey forward, we should be wary about some of the implications before those implications rebound on us. 

Evolvera – always changing, always evolving.


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