The world's first gun made mostly from 3-D printed parts won't beat the power of standard firearms or become the latest item in every U.S. household anytime soon. But the gun's first successful firing test raises new uncertainties about everything from existing gun laws to the future of 3D printing.
A remote firing test of the "Liberator" gun took place in central Texas on 1 May, as witnessed by a reporter from Forbes. The gun's design is based on a digital blueprint by Defense Distributed—a group founded by Cody Wilson with the goal of creating fully 3-D printable guns and making their digital blueprints freely available online. Defense Distributed produced the gun parts by using an $8,000, second-hand 3D printer originally made by Stratasys
Wilson followed up the first firing test by personally hand-firing another Liberator gun on 4 May. He told the BBC that his efforts were "about liberty."
I'm seeing a world where technology says you can pretty much be able to have whatever you want. It's not up to the political players any more
The idea of 3D-printed guns becoming available to anyone with a 3D printer has alarmed U.S. lawmakers already engaged in the political battles over gun control. Senator Charles Schumer of New York described the new 3D-printable gun as having "stomach-churning" implications.
Now anyone—a terrorist, someone who is mentally ill, a spousal abuser, a felon—can essentially open a gun factory in their garage. It must be stopped.
The reality of 3-D printable gun technology still falls short of both Wilson's optimistic view and Schumer's alarm. The Liberator gun remains a single-shot weapon that only fires handgun rounds—hardly a match for any gun produced by standard methods and more comparable to homemade zip guns from the 1950s. When Defense Distributed tried to fire the gun with a higher-charge rifle cartridge, the gun's ABS plastic parts exploded.
Such 3-D printable guns also remain out of reach for the vast majority of people because of legal complications and the difficulty in accessing 3D printers. A writer for the Atlantic Wire was able to download the weapon's digital blueprints easily enough (instructions available in both English and Chinese), but ran into three challenges that prevented him from actually printing out the gun:
The first question is whether or not the firearm is a legal weapon. The second is whether or not I could legally own it. The third is whether or not someone could make the parts for me.
Defense Distributed carried out its test legally by obtaining a federal license for manufacturing firearms. The group then put a hefty slug of steel inside the gun to meet the requirements of the Undetectable Firearms Act that looks to metal detectors as the primary screening technology for guns. (The only necessary non-printable part of the Liberator is its metal firing pin.)
But Defense Distributed also put out warnings for potential gun-makers despite making the blueprint available online for download. Wilson posted a disclaimer online that discourages anyone from following suit by printing the gun for themselves unless they meet the legal requirements.
Making the parts proved toughest of all for the Atlantic Wire writer—especially given the relatively low levels of 3-D printer ownership and the reluctance of 3-D printing companies to get involved in the gun-making business. He ran into stiff resistance from 3-D printing companies that did not want to have any part in printing out a gun—although he received at least one $1,500 price quote that was higher than the cost of a new AR-15 assault rifle.
3-D printable guns remain imperfect weapons at best, but their existence has already led to questions about whether the legal system can effectively limit uses of the technology in the future. Congressman Steve Israel (D-Huntington) of New York quickly renewed his call for overhauling the Undetectable Firearms Act to cover homemade, plastic high-capacity magazines and receivers as individual parts not already covered under the existing law.
The debate over 3-D printable guns could even lead to collateral damage by casting a chill over 3D printing technology overall, according to the Washington Post. The paper warned that the current political mood seems to be focused on shutting down 3-D printing technology related to making guns rather than shutting down the guns themselves.
The current legal framework feels clunky and inefficient, woefully unprepared for responding to rapid technological change. And, in the end, that system may end up hurting 3D printing companies, rather than hurting the actual bad guys
Photos: Defense Distributed
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.