3D-Printed Guns: Still Real, Still Not Perfect, Still Unstoppable


Our paper of record, the New York Times, sums it up: lots of people want to make plastic (at least partly) weapons using 3D printers, for all the same reasons anyone wants to be able to be self-sufficient and do cool new things, some people want to stop them, for all the same reasons of fear of new technologies and making things already possible a bit easier, but won't be able to.


"We now have 3-D printers that can manufacture firearms components in the basement," said Representative Steve Israel, Democrat of New York. "It's just a matter of time before a 3-D printer will produce a weapon capable of firing bullets."….

….To effectively outlaw weapons made with them, Mr. Israel wants to extend an existing law, set to expire this year, that makes weapons that are undetectable by security scanners — like a printed all-plastic gun — illegal.

But there are also major technical obstacles to creating an entire gun on a 3-D printer, not the least of which is that a plastic gun would probably melt or explode upon firing a single bullet, making it about as likely to kill the gunman as the target.

In the meantime, Michael Guslick in Milwaukee, Chapman Baetzel in Dover, N.H., and Cody Wilson in Austin, Tex., did something much simpler and, for now, more effective. They printed the part of an AR-15 assault rifle called the lower receiver, the central piece that other parts are attached to. Then, using standard metal components, including the chamber and barrel — the parts that must be strong enough to withstand the intense pressure of a bullet firing — they assembled working guns.

In all, the three men, who have written about their efforts on the Web, have fired hundreds of rounds, although the plastic receivers eventually deform, crack or otherwise fail from heat and shock….

A lower receiver is the only part of an AR-15 that, when bought, requires the filing of federal paperwork. But it is legal to make an AR-15 — and many other guns — for personal use as long as there is no intent to sell them. And if the lower receiver is homemade, no paperwork is required…..

Different people are making these guns for different reasons:

Mr. Guslick, who works in information technology and describes himself as a hobbyist gunsmith, printed his receiver on a machine he bought online through Craigslist. He used a file and abrasive paper to make the piece fit properly, but over all the project was not much of a technical challenge. "Anybody could do this," he said.

Mr. Baetzel, who made his receiver on a 3-D printer he built from a kit, said the part worked fine until he cracked it when bumping the gun while putting it in his car. He has since printed a replacement along with a modified grip and stock which, he said, has made the gun sturdier…..

Only Mr. Wilson, a law student whoprints his receivers on friends' machines, had overtly political motives, wanting to demonstrate what he called the absurdity of gun-control laws. He took his efforts even further, printing high-capacity magazines like those that would be banned under recommendations proposed by President Obama and successfully testing them this month on a firing range south of Austin….

Mr. Wilson also has a project to develop a fully printable one-shot weapon, although he has not made much progress. 

The article goes on to point out that old-fashioned metal machine shop tools are still likely to make you a better gun than a 3D printer will. The NRA did not comment to the Times on 3D weapons, and the usual suspects in the world of gun regulation are still scared of this technology. Look, guns are already out there and most anti-weapon regulations were feckless about actually stopping people (especially the criminally minded) from owning weapons anyway. The 3D printer is far more of an advance in People Power than it is an advance in Gun Criminal Power.

My Reason article from December about the 3D weapons brouhaha and Rep. Israel's anguish, with much interesting new stuff from WikiWeapons spokesman Cody Wilson.

Lots more Reason on 3D weapons.

A Reason TV interview with 3D printing mogul Peter Weijmarshausen: