THIS POST IS A WORK IN PROGRESS
3D Printed guns have been in the news again lately. To explain the current state, I’m going to go back several years.
Several years ago, Defense Distributed hosted a website with plans & information on how to make a gun at home, using a relatively new technology called “3D Printing”, which is a computer controlled machine that slowly builds layers of plastic into a complex final shape. Defense Distributed was shut down by the Department of Justice for supposedly violating a US law called “International Traffic in Arms Regulations” which forbids exporting military technology to other countries. Yes, that’s right, the US gov’t considered a crudely-made single-shot handgun to be a military grade weapon. If that’s true, then I’ve got bad news, because there’s a literal arsenal at your local Home Depot or other hardware shop (more on that later). Technically speaking, it’s a violation of ITAR to distribute any information about military weapons. From what I’ve read, you could interpret ITAR against Wikipedia because their article about the M-16 rifle includes detailed information about it’s length, weight, and other basic features.
After fighting with Department of Justice for several years, Defense Distributed settled out of court. I’ve read comments from the pro-gun side that DOJ knew they would lose in court, so they settled out of court to prevent creating a precedent. With that hurdle cleared, Defense Distributed was set to begin distributing the information again.
Although, just to be clear, the information never went away, it remained widely distributed online through back channels such as BitTorrent and other decentralized or offshore sources. Further, innovation did not stop. I recently read about one builder who designed a bolt-action rifle that uses the barrel, bolt, and trigger mechanism from an AR-15, but replaces all of the semi-auto parts with bolt-action parts.
[insert bolt action picture]
Now, several judges have blocked the spread of information about 3D printing guns. However, this is a clear 1st Amendment issue. If a book like “The Anarchist Cookbook” can be published for over 20 years under the First Amendment, then what right does a judge have to censor something as common place as a gun design? By the way, the “Cookbook” is not rare or banned. It’s even on Amazon Prime.
3D Printing a gun sounds scary, but it’s already easy to build a gun for anyone who wants to.
Look at this technical drawing. It’s meaningless to the average person, but any skilled machinist could use this information to make an AR-15 receiver. Of course, skilled machinists are relatively rare in our society, and the typical skilled machinist has better things to do with his time that building something that he could buy for $60 at the local gun shop.
Frankly, the AR-15 lower is a simple design. How simple? One guy carved an AR-15 lower out of a 2×4 board!
[insert board gun]
And there are DIY kits that have been on the market for decades (and yes, they are legal). These kits are called “80 percent” guns because the parts are about 80% finished, requiring the final builder to finish several steps that involve drilling some holes and cutting certain slots. To make the process even easier, there are “80 percent” kits that use plastic to make it easier to cut the slots and drill the holes with common household tools.
[insert 80 lower]
And that’s just for something as complex and expensive as an AR-15, which requires a bunch of metal gun parts to be added to the 3D printed parts. Something simpler like the fully-3D-printed Liberator pistol can be made even easier. A crude shotgun can be made out of 2 pieces of steel pipe. The user loads one pipe with the shotshell, slides the loaded “barrel” into a larger pipe, and slams the barrel back to set off the shotshell!
[insert youtube video]
The point is that you can’t stop the signal.
Guns are mechanically simple devices. I would argue that they’re one of the simplest devices in modern society. The only challenge to building them is making sure you get all the measurements right, and making sure it’s strong enough that it won’t blow up in your hands.
Again, you can’t stop the signal.