3-D printers are on the verge of going from “impressive technology” to “political football.” Wisconsin engineer and amateur gunsmith Michael Guslick posted images of what he claims to be the first 3-D printed gun on his blog and on Thingiverse — the MakerBot community where users share their designs — kicking off a torrent of discussion on the site. In the wake of two-high profile massacres, the practice of printing parts for firearms could bring increased scrutiny to the burgeoning technology.
But is there any real danger of a “Gunpocalypse” where home-brew firearms flood the streets? Not likely. Consumer printers can’t create the required tensile strength. At least, not yet. “Can you create the AR-15 out of thermoplastic parts on a 3-D printer? No, not gonna happen,” Guslick says. “Even the highest performance plastic materials available only get you half the tensile strength to shoot something as small as .22 caliber ammo.”
What many fail to realize is that his “3-D printed gun” design features only one 3-D printed part, the “lower” component which interfaces with the clip. The barrel, handle, and other pieces are fabricated using traditional metalsmithing tools. Even with a 3-D printer, a would-be weapon maker would also need access to a lathe, mill, and quite a bit of expertise to build a functional weapon.
The reason why Guslick’s “lower” print is significant is that all other parts of the AR-15 can be purchased without a background check. The “lower” is the part that’s defined as a “firearm” and subject to the Gun Control Act of 1968. The purchase requires filling out Form 4473, and is closely monitored. “Anyone with an interest in home gunsmithing should read up on the applicable laws,” Guslick warns. “It’s really a minefield.”
We may be safe for now, but what about people who want to use 3-D printing to invent new kinds of weaponry? Guslick draws the analogy of another new, and potentially controversial, technology: molecular computing. “You can make a Turing Machine out of DNA using logic gates, but you can’t play Minecraft on it. So is it really a computer?” Guslick asks. “With firearms, you could make what is technically a gun just using materials from the plumbing aisle of a hardware store, but it wouldn’t be a firearm in any conventional sense.”
Guslick is conversant in both the technical properties of materials and firearms law. He says high-end printers that use lasers to sinter metal could produce more functional components of a firearm, but with 200 million guns in the US already, the black market is still an easier source. The idea of 3-D printing a gun didn’t even occur to him until he “saw a person put the magazine up on Thingiverse.”
What do the big 3-D printer manufacturers have to say about this? Stratasys, the company that manufactured the machine that Guslick used to print this weapon declined to comment for this story beyond pointing out the positive work being done with their machines.
Thingiverse prohibits users from uploading anything that “contributes to the creation of weapons” according to section 3.3(a) of their Terms of Service, but the service has not yet banned dozens of uploaded designs for weapon parts, including magazines, grips, and lower receivers.
Abe Reichental President and CEO of 3D Systems offered this statement: “For 26 years 3-D printing has been changing peoples lives for the better, whether its by creating unique, lifesaving medical applications or revolutionizing manufacturing…we would hate to see this jeopardized with recklessness.”
He says he hopes this will galvanize the 3-D printing industry to “take all available measures to eradicate unlawful uses and applications of our technology.” New regulation probably won’t eradicate unlawful use, but it might stem the tide. The trick will be writing it with a predictive eye toward what 3-D printers may be capable of in the near future.
Guslick, for one, is erring on the side of caution. “We don’t want the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives busting down our doors,” he says. “We’re just hobbyists.”