3D printing, or Additive Manufacturing, has excellent potential and is making inroads into becoming a very prosperous commercial technology. One can see 3D printing at work in many industries including surgery, medicine, food, eyewear, clothing, architecture, and in the design and manufacture of aircraft, trucks, and cars. In the future, it will probably play a significant role in schools for STEM education.
That’s all exciting news, but there is one application of 3D printing that is more alarming, and that is using AM to make DIY firearms. In 2013, US-based group Defense Distributed run by Cody Wilson, revealed plans to create a fully operational plastic 3D-printed gun, which they called “The Liberator.”
Moreover, anyone with a 3D printer could download the programming code online and reproduce the single-shot handgun made of plastic similar to Lego except for two little metal pieces — one is the firing pin. Even though 3D printers are still expensive, the market is expanding, and some companies are offering lower cost versions. Wilson’s blueprint has been downloaded thousands of times.
Ongoing Legal Battle
The issue raised questions regarding gun control, a heatedly debated topic in the U.S., and many accused Wilson of violating US export laws and ordered to take his site down. It didn’t end there.
Standing by his right to freedom of speech for posting the blueprint, Wilson sued the government, then under the Obama administration, kicking off a years-long legal dispute. On August 1, 2018, Trump’s State Department and Wilson reached a settlement allowing downloads from the website to continue and paying his $40,000 legal fees.
Avery Gardiner, co-president of the non-profit Brady Campaign gun control organization, reacted that everybody in the U.S. ought to be terrified.
Availability is not Always a Good Thing
U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer said the danger this posed was beyond imagination and enormous if insane people and terrorist have access to the website and the ability to make plastic AR15s under the radar. The AR-15 is a semi-automatic rifle that has been used in countless mass shootings and school shootings in the U.S.
A month after the settlement, federal judge Robert Lasnik, granted a provisional national injunction against Defense Distributed, barring it from making its blueprints available. After several hours, Wilson complied.
Although the case is not over, given that the injunction was provisional, many gun control advocates lauded the decision as a success. Bob Ferguson, Washington state attorney general, expressed gratitude and relief that the judge had put the brakes on the Trump Administration’s perilous decision to sanction downloadable, 3D-printed guns for online distribution. The arms, he said, would have been at the disposal of any terrorist, domestic abuser, or felon.
Ghost Guns Might be Traceable
Weapons like Wilson’s are dubbed “ghost guns,” because they have no serial numbers and can easily be disassembled making them untraceable. Moreover, since these weapons aren’t as sophisticated as typical firearms, one needs no license, permit, or any mental health or criminal background check to make them.
All this might change. A University at Buffalo-led study, released in October 2018, states that “3D printers have ‘fingerprints,’ a discovery that could help trace 3D-printed guns.” According to the researchers, this is the first ever precise method for tracking a 3D-printed object to the machine from which it came. This “PrinTracker” could help law enforcement and intelligence organizations track the origin of 3D-printed guns, forged products, and other goods.
Summed up in a nutshell by the study’s lead author UB’s Wenyao Xu, Ph.D., said that while 3D printing has numerous superb uses, it is also a fraudster’s dream. Even more worrying, is its potential to make weapons more easily accessible to those who are not permitted to own them.