Firearms laws in the United States are a constantly changing morass of local, state and federal regulations, and the same gun that can be bought in an afternoon at a corner pawn shop in rural Kentucky might require a lengthy background check and multiple fees in Chicago. Recent attempts to level the playing field in a more restrictive direction have failed noisily in the Senate, disappointing many concerned by the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School and other recent shootings. Efforts to make firearms more accessible, on the other hand, have received an unexpected boost from a source far removed from Capitol Hill: geeks at the cutting edge of additive manufacturing, a process popularly known as 3-D printing.
In traditional, or subtractive, manufacturing, an object is constructed by removing pieces from a solid block of material: think Michelangelo chiseling marble into his David, or a drill hollowing out a metal tube (as in a gun barrel). In contrast, additive manufacturing works by binding successive layers of a material until the final object is formed, like building up a tower from LEGO bricks. Computer design files provide the blueprints for a 3-D printer, which then translates the information into an actual plastic or metal object, generating little to none of the waste associated with older methods. The technique has been rapidly adopted by fields in which the speedy production of custom parts is of the essence; it’s possible for automotive or aerospace companies to bypass their machine shops and get a leg up on their competitors, for example. Although 3-D printers are still expensive for the average consumer, their price continues to drop, and it is predicted that machines good enough for business use will fall under $2,000 in the next five years.
University of Texas law student Cody Wilson and his nonprofit corporation, Defense Distributed, are pushing the boundaries of the possible in 3-D printing. Last month, Defense Distributed was able to print a nearly-complete plastic handgun (save the firing pin, for which they used a hardware nail), and several tests proved the weapon to work just as designed. The pistol, named the “Liberator” in reference to similar weapons dropped over Nazi-occupied territory in World War II, has its limitations: the weapon is single-shot, can only handle lower caliber ammunition, and starts to deform after repeated firing. To Wilson and his associates, however, these are merely engineering concerns. Their focus is on the massive disruptive potential inherent in this idea, in a gun that is cheap, untraceable, and able to be made anywhere in the world.
Understandably, lawmakers have responded to this possibility with panic, with Rep. Steve Israel, D-New York, pushing to renew and strengthen the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, was quoted as saying, “Now anyone, a terrorist, someone who’s mentally ill, a spousal abuser, a felon can essentially open a gun factory in their garage.” The U.S. Department of Defense Trade Controls has pulled the CAD (computer-aided design) files from Defense Distributed’s main distributor until further notice. However, the manufacture of non-assault weapons for personal use is currently completely legal, and those in possession of the files are not prohibited from making use of them.
It is perhaps all too easy to imagine a psychopath bent on destruction bypassing a background check by printing a weapon. Yet as Wilson imagines, there are alternative and compelling situations where an easily-procured firearm could be of legitimate use. “This is about enabling individuals to create their own sovereign space,” he says, whether that be an impoverished inner-city woman making a gun for personal protection or Syrian rebels circumventing the arms embargoes of an oppressive regime. An argument could be made that the ready distribution of weapons is in keeping with the aims of the Second Amendment, in which the necessity of arms to “the security of a free state” is emphasized. A nation in which any citizen could obtain a gun from anywhere would be nearly impossible to subdue.
As the legal ramifications of the technology continue to be debated, Wilson and Defense Distributed continue to push forward. The group has already produced a 3-D–printed lower receiver for the AR-15 rifle, the only part of the weapon to be regulated by law, capable of handling over 600 rounds of fire. In his own words, he believes that the “government will increasingly be on the sidelines, saying ‘hey, wait.’” The continued circulation of the plans for these parts, despite federal objections, suggests that he may be close to the truth.