How Valid is the Hysteria Against 3D Guns?

Congressman Steve Israel recently wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times claiming that anyone with “an inexpensive printer purchased online or at the neighborhood office supply store” can produce a “fully functioning” and “lethal” firearm after the Trump administration allowed the online publication of blueprints to create 3D-printed guns.

A senior policy advisor at Giffords – a prominent gun control organization – had similar concerns. “People who are unable to pass a background check—like terrorists, convicted felons, and domestic abusers—will be able to 3D-print a gun out of the same type of plastic used to make LEGOs—without any attached serial numbers.”

Can someone really produce a gun off an average $300 printer from Staples and use it as an alternative to conventional guns? Industry experts disagree.

“They don’t work worth a damn. Criminals can obviously go out and steal guns or even manufacture quote-unquote real guns, not 3D printed,” Executive Director of the National Shooting Sports Foundation Larry Keane pointed out.

Experts from across the board told the Associated Press that 3D-printed guns often disintegrate after one or two shots, they are hardly ever accurate, have to be manually reloaded each time and “pose a risk that the user would be injured.”

TEDx speaker and host for the Discovery Channel Doc North tested a 3D-printed gun produced from a $0.5 million printer and the outcome was that the weapon was “inferior to its conventional counterparts.

The recent outcry from gun control advocates stems from a June ruling by the State Department that settled its case against Cody Wilson: owner of Defense Distributed who was once named by Wired as one of the 15 most dangerous people in the world.

Defense Distributed – a non-profit, private defense firm – first published blueprints for 3D-printed guns in 2013 but they were taken down by the State Department on the basis that it violated federal export laws since anyone from outside the U.S. can download the designs.

An obscure change that started during the Obama administration, however, rendered that commercially available weapons are not subject to trade rules because they now come under the purview of the Commerce Department unlike military grade firearms which remain under the jurisdiction of the State Department.

There is no known case where someone was shot or killed with a 3D-printed gun. Australian media reported in 2016 that police discovered “Uzi”-style guns in a raid that were “thought to be made with the help of a 3D printer and were fairly close to factory quality.

The police has a valid claim if the guns were 3D-printed in their entirety but one observer was skeptical because of the presence of typical gunsmith production machines at the place of the raid.

“The critical part – the barrel – appears to be a conventional non-printed piece, most likely metal. Whether it would have actually worked safely or simply been used for intimidation is another question entirely,” Professor Thomas Birtchnell said of a different raid where a 3D-printed handgun was found by the Australian police.

What do lawmakers say about this?

Gunsmithing or making your own guns is completely legal as long as it is not done for commercial reasons but the law stipulates that a metal component is inserted into a gun so that it is detectable by screening machines commonly used at public spaces like airports and courthouses. There is a loophole, however.

The law falls short of saying that the metal component has to be an essential part of the gun without which it cannot function because plastic gun producers go around the law by adding an easily detachable metal piece which is not required for the weapon to work.

What’s next?

A federal judge on Tuesday evening temporarily blocked the June settlement just hours before Wilson could repost his blueprints. The follow up hearing is set for August 10 where the opposing side will likely argue that the availability of 3D designs online will usher in “the age of the downloadable gun.

Robert Spitzer, a second amendment expert and chairman of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland, agrees that “3D-printed firearms are a novelty now — too expensive to make and too fragile to be used for more than a few shots — technology will soon catch up.”

Former Wired editor Jon Stokes sees it in a different way.

“The homebrew gun revolution won’t create a million untraceable guns so much as it’ll create a hundreds of thousands of Karl Lewises — solitary geniuses who had a good idea, prototyped it, began making it and selling it in small batches, and ended up supplying a global arms market with new technology and products.”

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