If gun rights activist Cody Wilson gets his way in his legal battle, soon anybody – including convicted felons and the mentally ill – with a few raw materials and access to an industrial 3D printer could build a plastic firearm, gun control advocates say.
But will people, particularly a criminal or someone else intent on carrying out violence, bother to make the effort?
Tech experts and stakeholders in the gun control debate are divided on whether the emergence of 3D-printed plastic guns presents an immediate safety threat to U.S communities.
Tuesday, a federal judge in Seattle placed a temporary injunction until Aug. 10 against Wilson from publishing his blueprints on his website, Defcad.com.
Some 3D print experts said that even if Wilson wins his battle, the plastic gun is, at least at this point, not a practical weapon.
“It’s not feasible to print a 100% 3D-printed gun, because the plastic that is being printed that is used here is not strong enough to withstand a barrel or the explosion from a bullet,” said Michael Flynn, who runs a year-old 3D printing business in Fort Worth, Texas.
As the latest chapter in America’s battle over gun control unfolds, the use of 3D printing technology for manufacturing reliable firearms is still very much a work-in-progress and a pricey endeavor.
Industrial 3D printers cost $20,000 to $100,000, and many companies that rent use of their printers explicitly prohibit users from manufacturing weapons.
Wilson has waged a legal battle since 2013 to be allowed to post his blueprints. He was forced by the State Department during the Obama administration to cease publishing his blueprints but sued to get his schematics back online.
The State Department told Wilson that disseminating the blueprints could be a violation of the Arms Export Control Act, which authorizes the president to control the import and export of defense weapons and defense services and to regulate their import and export.
Multiple courts ruled in the Obama administration’s favor, but Donald Trump's presidential victory in 2016 brought Wilson new life.
Last month, the State Department reached a settlement that allowed for Wilson, who argued his First Amendment rights were violated by the government order, to post his blueprints starting Aug. 1.
Before the deadline, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., attempted to pass legislation that would make it illegal to intentionally publish a digital file that programs a 3D printer to manufacture a firearm. The legislation was blocked by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who said he had concerns it would infringe on First Amendment rights.
Gun control advocates and some policymakers – including attorney generals from eight states and the District of Columbia who sued the government to block the blueprints – said homemade plastic weapons without serial numbers could aid terrorists and endanger the public. Critics are concerned that the availability of 3D guns would give felons and others restricted by law from possessing weapons another route to illegally secure firearms.
Federal law requires all firearms to have at least 3.7 ounces of steel, so they can be detected by metal detectors. Gun rights advocates noted that one easy workaround for gunmakers would be to add a single removable metal component.
Linda Teplin, a Northwestern University psychiatry professor who studies the correlation of firearms violence, public health policy and criminalization of the mentally ill, said 3D-gun blueprints could lower the bar for accessibility to weapons. She predicted “perpetrators of mayhem” would take advantage.
“No restrictions, background checks or serial number?” Teplin said. “Now, guns are available to anyone – even a child – who can use a computer and has a 3D printer. We cannot reduce the epidemic of firearm violence if we increase the availability of guns.”
The potential for a growing number of weapons that don’t have serial numbers is problematic for law enforcement, gun control advocates said. Last year, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) used serial numbers to trace guns more than 400,000 times.
“Whether the tool of violence is a gun, a truck or another device, criminals don’t want a serial number to land them in prison,” writes David Chipman, a former ATF special agent who is a senior policy adviser for the gun control group Giffords.
U.S. law allows individuals to build their own weapons as long as the weapon is kept for personal use. Anyone with some mechanical skill and machine tools can assemble an untraceable firearm using unregulated parts they can buy without going through a background check.
David Prince of Eagle Gun Range in Farmer’s Branch, Texas, said a 3D printer might make the process of building a gun simpler, but he doubts people will rush out and buy the equipment to do it themselves.
“You still can’t get through metal detectors,” he said. “You still have to have ammo to fire it. That metal that’s in the ammo is going to be detected.”
Flynn, who owns the Fort Worth 3D printing company, said it was more conceivable to use a 3D printer for accessories, such as magazines and gun stocks, rather than an entire weapon.
He said he turned down a potential customer who approached him about printing a plastic bump stock for a semiautomatic rifle. A bump stock, which was used in last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 dead, allows rifles to mimic fully automatic machine gun fire.
Others in the 3D industry questioned why someone prohibited from purchasing a weapon would go to the trouble of printing a weapon when it would be easier and cheaper to buy one through a private gun sale or an illegal gun dealer – who wouldn’t require background checks.
“There’s no reason to fear a 3D-printed gun any more than you would a conventionally manufactured … firearm,” according to the online 3D trade site all3dp.com.
Kris Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said untraceable 3D guns would add “immeasurably” to gun violence in the USA, which she said already has a porous gun permitting process.
“It is causing a huge increased threat, and one that can’t be put back into the bottle once it's unleashed,” Brown said.
Contributing: Jason Whitely of WFAA-TV