As the gun control debate heats up in Washington, advocates for reform now face a new challenge as 3D printing becomes a more affordable hobby. This is because 3D printers are now capable of making firearms – including the infamous AR-15 semi-automatic rifle – for any consumer willing to spend a few hundred bucks on a modern three-dimensional printer.
For those not familiar with this engineering revolution, 3D printing is the art of turning digital models into real objects. The process today is now simplified with open-sourced schematics that are available online for free, which includes hundreds of thousands of objects that range from shoes to clocks.
After downloading one of these objects’ blueprints, a person only needs to add raw materials into a 3D printer (like plastic resin or aluminum dust) and click ‘print’. Depending on the quality of the printer and complexity of the item, what you see on the computer screen could become a tangible reality within minutes.
Proving, however, that printing a functional, plastic AR-15 isn’t a work of science fiction, the non-profit group Defense Distributed has published videos online to show otherwise.
In a video from December, the group printed and tested an AR-15 receiver (the main body and federal definition of this gun), which fired several shots before having problems. Last month, Defense Distributed unveiled the “Cuomo”, a 30-round AR-15 magazine named after outspoken gun control advocate and current Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo.
The 3D printed magazine demonstrated that it could fire hundreds of bullets without fail, leading to its blueprints being downloaded hundreds of thousands of times by people all across the world.
According to Defense Distributed’s website, the goal of the organization is to continue designing components and prototypes under what they call the “Wiki Weapon Project." The project has raised tens of thousands of dollars in donations and has had companies publicly offer 3D printing equipment and space for testing future ‘wiki weapon’ guns.
The success and popularity of 3D printing guns and components has drawn some concern from gun control supporters in Washington, particularly from Representative Steve Israel (D-NY). Following the “Cuomo” magazine test video – posted on YouTube in January – Rep. Israel responded by saying:
“Background checks and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print high-capacity magazines at home. 3D printing is a new technology that shows great promise, but also requires new guidelines. Law enforcement officials should have the power to stop high-capacity magazines from proliferating with a Google search.”
In order to halt future production of 3D printed guns and magazines, Rep. Israel is seeking to renew the Undetectable Firearms Act, the federal ban on plastic guns that is set to expire at the end of the year. He also supports Senator Dianne Feinstein’s gun control bill, which bans the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
While the advent of 3D printing technology is scary, especially the thought of criminals making guns in their living rooms, it is important to understand its limits.
Most 3D printers for home use are limited to using plastic as its polymer, thus making 3D printed guns and components terribly impractical for customary use. This is highlighted in one of Defense Distributed's videos, which shows the AR-15 break in half after shooting six rounds.
Of course, with any emerging technology, there is a double-edged sword to progress: a maxim that is undoubtedly applicable to the revolution of 3D printing.
What computers and the Internet have done for this generation, 3D printing will do for the next; inspiring innovation and creating jobs in vital fields such as medicine, science, logistics, education, and engineering.
Yet, just like we see with today’s technological cornerstones, 3D printing will provoke fear and trepidation. The good news, however, is that this trend seems to be working, at least for technologies similar to 3D printing such as robotics and synthetic biology.
So, if history is any indicator, we should continue to foster this innovative technology while addressing the inherent concerns with 3D printing guns.