The 3D-Printed Gun Isn’t Coming. It’s Already Here

All you need is a blueprint, a polymer, a printer, and a knowledge of government regulations—so you know how to bend them. On October 9, 2019 — Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year — a young white man attempted to enter a synagogue in Halle, Germany, with what appeared to be at least six homemade firearms while livestreaming via the gaming platform Twitch.

Unable to enter the building, which had about 80 people inside, the man began shooting on the street, killing two and injuring two others. The gunman was a 27-year-old right-wing extremist with anti-Semitic and far-right views who had outlined his beliefs in a “manifesto” he uploaded online shortly before attempting to enter the synagogue. During the confusion following the attack, news outlets reported he had committed the atrocity using a 3D-printed gun.

The idea of a mass shooter using 3D printing technology shocked and intrigued those following the developing story from afar. U.K. newspaper The Independent cautioned, “Use of 3D printed guns in German synagogue shooting must act as a warning to security services, experts say,” while the Wall Street Journal screamed, “Is 3-D Printing the Future of Terrorism?”

The threat of the 3D-printed gun has loomed large in the American imagination for nearly a decade.

In 2013, Cody Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed — an open-source collective devoted to developing printable guns — unveiled plans for the world’s first entirely 3D-printed gun: he “Liberator,” a clunky-looking, single-shot, plastic beige handgun named in honor of the FP-45 Liberator, a pistol that U.S. soldiers dropped behind enemy lines to resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied territories during World War II. Shortly after Wilson released the files online, the State Department forced him to take them down, jump-starting a debate over guns, gun control, and free speech that continues to pop up whenever 3D-printed firearms are mentioned. Wilson wasn’t penalized for making his Liberator prototype, though; the feds only swooped in once he shared the blueprints online.

It turned out that news reports had overstated the Halle gunman’s weapons; he hadn’t used a 3D-printed gun like the fully plastic, single-shot Liberator. Researchers at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London confirmed that the two firearms used had only been partially constructed with the 3D-printed parts of a trigger clip and torch barrel attachment on a Luty submachine gun and a shell holder attachment on a shotgun.

According to his writing online, the Halle gunman had held a longtime interest in homemade weapons and had written in his manifesto that he’d wanted to take this opportunity to demonstrate their viability. Fortunately, both of the weapons he used malfunctioned at least three times, leading the gunman to yelp in frustration on his livestream, “I have certainly managed to prove how absurd improvised weapons are!”

3D-printed guns fall into the larger category of homemade firearms, known colloquially as “ghost guns” — an established, if slightly niche, part of gun culture, especially in America. The U.S. is home to a long tradition of DIY gunsmithing that stretches back to the Colonial era, when local blacksmiths forged musket barrels as well as horseshoes. Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, also pioneered the “interchangeable parts” method of production, which was used by legions of individual craftsmen to manufacture thousands of muskets during the 1790s.

Thanks to the Second Amendment, there are few paths to regulate or legislate ghost guns out of existence, and cracking down on 3D printing will only do so much.

Ghost guns have risen in popularity thanks in part to the 2004 expiration of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which had prohibited U.S. residents from owning different kinds of assault weapons as well as various types of large-capacity magazines. Most modern firearms hobbyists have since taken to using parts kits, which are easily attainable through internet retailers. There are a number of varieties on offer, from Glock handguns to classic 1911 pistols to more advanced weaponry. The one thing all of these homemade firearms have in common — from the rudimentary to the cutting edge — is that they are untraceable, untrackable, and, provided one follows a few cursory rules, completely legal under U.S. federal law.

For those wishing to make their own AR-15 rifles, the most important DIY component is its lower receiver, which connects the stock, barrel, magazine, and other parts. After the assault weapons ban expired, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said that it would no longer characterize an AR-15 receiver as a firearm as long as the trigger cavity was not yet milled out. This small distinction made it legal for online retailers to sell as many 80%-completed AR-15 receivers — as well as other varieties and accessories — as they liked. With the right tools, some basic know-how, and a little bit of old-fashioned elbow grease, anyone can make their own unregistered AR-15 rifle sans background check, sans waiting period, and sans government oversight.

Ghost guns periodically end up in the news and tend to trigger a chain reaction of intrigue and horror when they do. The primary sticking point for people seems to be their untraceable, unregistered aspect; law enforcement issues dire warnings about “criminals” using them for nefarious means, and the gun-control advocates who push for more firearms regulation are understandably alarmed by their existence. Add 3D-printing to that equation — a technology that essentially allows a person to create an object out of thin air — and you’ve got a recipe for public concern.

In March of this year, Defense Distributed relaunched DEFCAD, a massive online library of downloadable design files that, for an annual fee, are available to all U.S. residents. President Donald Trump expressed momentary interest in 3D gun blueprints in 2018, and his administration has attempted to transfer regulation of these guns away from the State Department, which would allow for broader distribution. A number of state attorneys asked the Trump administration to crack down on the site immediately after it went live, but as of now, DEFCAD remains victorious — and currently boasts over 23,000 registered users.

Yet for all the hubbub around Wilson’s Liberator, it is still a clunky, goofy-looking, single-shot gun — more of a political statement than a functional weapon. While the impact Wilson and Defense Distributed have had on the field is insurmountable, they’re no longer the only game in town. For better or worse, thousands of people are now getting in on the ghost gun action using 3D printing — fashioning parts instead of an entire plastic gun. Even before the coronavirus pandemic sent sales of parts kits skyrocketing, these untraceable weapons were exploding in popularity. In 2019, D.C. police seized 116 ghost guns; in 2018, the number was 25; in 2017, they seized three.

Thanks to the Second Amendment, there are few paths to regulate or legislate ghost guns out of existence, and cracking down on 3D printing will only do so much, especially at a time when the technology is enjoying an upswing in popularity due to its efficacy in churning out personal protective equipment. 3D-printed guns aren’t the stuff of science-fiction nightmares — they’re already here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *