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Civil Liberties

What Will Happen When People Can 3-D Print Their Own Guns?

Defense Distributed (DefDist), a nonprofit seeking to make gun blueprints freely available online, recently announced that it has reached a settlement with the Department of Justice, which was attempting to keep DefDist from offering the blueprints online. After this news broke, the media buzzed with misleading articles about how “downloadable guns” will “[become] legal” on August 1 and how it would open a Pandora’s box of homemade guns.

This has only further plunged the national gun debate into an incomprehensible mess. Yet in reality, the DefDist settlement does nothing to change the legal status of homemade guns, and very little to change the difficulty of making one.

To start out, it’s not illegal to make your own gun in the United States—if you play by the rules. The only federal laws at issue here can be complied with by simply not making the gun a machine gun, and following restrictions on barrel length (requiring 16 inches for shoulder-fired guns, among other things). The gun must also contain enough metal to set off a metal detector, which usually occurs as a natural consequence of the gun’s functionality.

Finally, unless you have a manufacturing license, the weapon cannot be made with the intention of selling. That is not to say that the weapon can never be sold, but simply that you cannot start up a garage shop selling hot-off-the-press 3-D-printed firearms. This is more of a tax law concern than anything else, as commercial manufacturing of firearms requires the payment of special taxes.

So what was the DOJ really concerned with when they ordered DefDist to pull gun blueprints from their website in 2015? Well, it wasn’t any particular gun law, but rather a ludicrous interpretation of the Cold War-era International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which was passed with the intention of controlling exports of “defense articles.” The DOJ argued that by making gun blueprint files available to download on the internet, DefDist was “exporting” such materials. This is why the lawsuit was more about the First Amendment than the Second, as it was the expressive content—the files—the DOJ took issue with, not the ultimate item produced.

When the DOJ ordered DefDist to take down the files, that did little to stop the extant files from spreading online. One can easily find regularly updated “megapacks” (downloadable repositories of weapon-related files) hosted all across the internet with hundreds of 3-D printables inside. In reality, the only thing the DOJ did was make it so that people with new designs had to be sneaky with distribution, rather than being able to publicly post their innovations.
The latest hysteria is simply an example of what a paranoid, uninformed culture of gun control alarmism does whenever they learn of something “new.”
Compare this result—the government pressing new designers into obscurity—with how we treated David Marshall Williams, the convicted murderer-turned-icon who famously designed semi-automatic rifles while in prison. He got his sentence commuted as a result and ultimately changed history with his development of the United States’ prolific M1 Carbine.

What of the concerns of “undetectable plastic guns” that anyone can (allegedly) make at home, though? Well, for one, all files for fully 3-D printed firearms require the addition of metal parts in order to function properly and comply with federal law, making them detectable. Furthermore, the only gun files that this concern really applies to are files like the “liberator” and “songbird” pistols, both rather anemic single-shot pistols devoid of almost any practical use. These guns are arguably about as effective as a Revolutionary War-style muzzle-loading pistol, a class of firearms almost completely unregulated in the U.S.

As for the notion that these are firearms “anyone can make,” this is true in the sense that the printers needed to make the guns cost as little as $150, a far cry from Vice’s low-end estimate of $5,000. That’s right, 3-D printers that are useful in gun-making are affordable. But really, this changes nothing. Fully 3-D printed guns are still ineffective, probably less effective than firearms you can craft from hardware store scraps. There will be no proliferation of horrifying killing machines as a result of this.

The most practical use of a 3-D printer in home gun-making is not in printing an entire gun, but only the part the government considers a “firearm,” the receiver. Firearms are made up of multiple parts. Some bear pressure, like the barrel and bolt, and some are subject to much less stress, like the receiver. Pressure-bearing parts that have to hold up to the repeated firing of powerful ammunition simply cannot be made from plastic. On this, claims that one can “print an AR-15” using just plastic are overblown.

Finally, concerns of homemade guns being “untraceable” miss the mark as well. Crime shows like CSI have led people to dramatically overestimate the ability of the police to “track” a gun. In reality, the government is only able to track which licensed dealers a firearm has traded hands through. Once the firearm is in the private market, the government’s ability to competently trace it rapidly diminishes.

There is also no magical “fingerprint” placed on a bullet or casing fired from a gun. The factors that cause a gun to make an imprint on a bullet are industrial standards, not unique to a particular gun. There is no database capable of matching a bullet to a particular gun. Realistically, all that can be read from a bullet is its approximate caliber and basic information about the barrel. This is not tremendously useful information, as millions of guns share calibers and have similar barrels. “Tracing” a 3-D printed gun is no different from the readily available “80 percent receivers” people have turned into complete firearms for years, or the “parts kit builds” that have been popular in the U.S. for decades, all without major incident.

So who are 3-D printed guns really useful for? Certainly, not common criminals. Despite the availability of files, 3-D printing remains a tremendously technical undertaking that few common crooks are competent enough to handle properly. Like metalworking tools that can likewise produce a firearm, 3-D printers require special knowledge and skill. Nothing changed when Chinese metalworking tools flooded the market in the 1980s, making decent gun-smithing tools available to home machinists. Nothing will change with easier access to 3-D printing, either.

The latest hysteria is simply an example of what a paranoid, uninformed culture of gun control alarmism does whenever they learn of something “new.” We have nothing to fear from the re-launch of DefDist’s site tomorrow, but instead, should be embracing this technology as a means of empowering innovators to keep developing new things.

Matthew Larosiere is a legal associate at a Washington, D.C. think tank. He can be found on twitter @MattLaAtLaw.