Open source

Unpacking America’s downloadable 3D printed guns

Today is the day that Defense Distributed’s 3D printable gun models were due to go online. In case you missed it, on 10 July 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice decided to overturn a ban on the digital distribution of files that can be downloaded and used to make 3D printed guns.

The debate, and media coverage, has become predictably heated – yet in the main has ignored a critical element. 3D printed guns remain an unlikely,  impractical and generally more convoluted route for those who seek access to weapons.

Yet, the tone of the conversation is of concern with some fearing a reactionary backlash that may impose unnecessary legislation on the additive manufacturing sector as a whole.

The lawsuit was brought forward by gun rights non-profit the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) and Cody Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed.

In addition to the verdict, the court in Austin, Texas, ruled that semi-automatic rifles and hand guns are not classed as “weapons of war.” The news has since churned up a media storm across America, with individual states taking exemption to the ruling, and even celebrities and the President of the United States weighing in on the subject.

At 3D Printing Industry, we have been keeping a close watch on the public’s reaction to the decision, and collected opinions on the subject. Read on to learn what it means to live in the “age of the downloadable gun.”

Text on the homepage of Defense Distributed appears upside down on August 1, 2018, the day DEFCAD was supposed to go live.
Text on the homepage of Defense Distributed appears upside down on August 1, 2018, the day DEFCAD was supposed to go live.

States bring restraining order

In the immediate wake of the DOJ ruling, gun safety advocacy groups The Brady Center to Prevent Gun ViolenceEverytown for Gun Safety and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence rallied to obtain an injunction on the ruling.

Received by Federal Judge Robert Pitman in Austin, the appealing amicus brief was denied.

However, a federal judge in the Western District of Washington has issued a temporary restraining order on the site, shutting down the DEFCAD portion for downloading files.

Other states have also spoken out against the decision made in Texas, and will not be allowing residents access to the gun files. By the media’s count California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington are the states sing Defense Distributed for its 3D printable gun files. Though by Wilson’s own count on Twitter, 21 state attorney generals are suing him and the company.

“A fundamental human right”

So far, Defense Distributed has succeeded due to pleas of the First and Second Amendments.

In Wilson’s own words, in an interview for CBS, he says “I believe that I am championing the Second Amendment in the 21st century.”

“I think access to a firearm is a fundamental human dignity, its a fundamental human right.”

Wilson also has every intention of fighting the suits brought against him. In the same interview with CBS, he says, “I will go to the appellate level. I will go to the Supreme Court. I will waste all my time.”

The Undetectable Firearms Act 

One of the biggest arguments against Wilson and Defense Distributed is that the downloadable gun files are in breach of the Undetectable Firearms Act. This was at least the case argued by gun safety advocacy groups.

As Defense Distributed’s gun are designed to be 3D printed in plastic, there is a concern that walk-through metal detectors would not be able to identify them.

However, for the Plastic Liberator handgun at least, there are at least three pre-made metal parts needed for an effective assembly: a steel block, for barrel reinforcement, a pin used to attach the grip, and, of course most crucial of all, a bullet (see video below for a SOLIDWORKS breakdown of the model).

How to make a 3D printed gun

The original Plastic Liberator handgun developed by Wilson was made on a loaned Stratasys 3D printer (subsequently rapidly seized by the company when they became aware of the intent), priced in the range of $8,000.

To dispel the myths of this gun breaking down after a single discharge, or in fact harming the user in the process, variations on the design have also appeared, including one reportedly 3D printed on a $1,725 Lulzbot 3D printer, shown firing 9 rounds (with apparently significant delays for reloading and replacing the barrel).

The fact remains, a tremendous amount of effort and a willingness to accept risk of personal injury when pulling the trigger surrounds the use of a 3D printed gun.

One comment from Tory Middlebrooks, an engineering student at the University of Arizona, neatly sums up some opinions on 3D printing for guns. “This technology isn’t really geared for that,” Middlebrooks explains in an interview for Tucson News. “The kind of people who are interested in those kinds of toys or machines aren’t going to do it by spending $800 or $900 on a 3D printer, or $13,000 on a laser cutter.”

“If somebody is interested in pursuing blacksmithing, to make a knife for example, it’s way better that you produce it the same way that we’ve been producing them for thousands of years than buying a laser cutter and laser-cutting a piece of sharpened acrylic. That’s not what these machines are good at doing.”

Indeed, as the linked video above shows, with time and effort it is possible to make a weapon from practically anything – even a knife from pasta.

Downloadable death?

In other areas, an article on Forbes argues that “What’s hard and expensive today may not be tomorrow. And though economics of making a 3D gun look crazy at the moment, the economics of making a much larger weapon might not.” This is a statement that most in the 3D printing industry would dismiss as far-fetched.

It is true that defense agencies are employing metal additive manufacturing to develop weapons, but it seems highly unlikely that there would ever be a consumer level market for this type of production. Nor is this technology accessible to a wider group.

In a guest opinion piece for CNN, actor and activist Alyssa Milano called files from Defense Distributed “downloadable death.”

The debate has also now reached the ears of President Donald Trump, who tweeted his response on Tuesday.

The President say he is "looking into 3-D Plastic Guns." Image via Twitter
The President say he is “looking into 3-D Plastic Guns.” Image via Twitter

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also confirmed that he will “take a look at” the issue.

Though for Wilson “the debate is over” on 3D printed guns, it may yet be some time before the whole of America can reach a mutual decision.

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Featured image shows the Plastic Liberator handgun. Photo via Defense Distributed