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Gun Violence: One Print Job at a Time

As of August 1, instructions for homemade guns will be officially, and entirely legally, distributed online.

In May 2013, Defense Distributed, a non-profit defense firm and consulting service geared toward firearm users and manufacturers, uploaded instructions online for the first 3D-printable gun. These instructions for the “Liberator,” as it was called, were subsequently downloaded over 100,000 times before the government demanded they be taken down. The Obama Administration argued that printed firearms would violate International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which are designed to control military exports. There was also hope to restrict printed weapons under a renewed Undetectable Firearms Act, but that effort was unsuccessful and has left such firearms in a legal “limbo.”

In 2015, Defense Distributed and the Second Amendment Foundation retorted by suing the government for obstructing free speech. A settlement was reached on July 20, 2018, allowing for such guns under ITAR with the rationale that they do not provide a “critical military or intelligence advantage.” There has also been suggestions that the current administration is looking to transfer oversight of such regulations from the State Department to the more ‘lenient’ Department of Commerce and to reduce regulations altogether, including eliminating those of ITAR. One anti-gun activist put it best, saying: “I’m not aware of anything that has changed except who sits in the White House.”

But how dangerous is the “Liberator” and has the market changed at all since 2013? When the Liberator was first produced, it was considered to be of minimal, practical threat. I won’t get into all the details of how 3D printing works, but the product is basically a function of the technology, design, and thermoplastics used. When first introduced, 3D printers were unable to create complex mechanisms like firearms, so the guns would be made in parts and then assembled by hand. This limited the types of guns that could be constructed and also required some knowledge of the tech and materials for assembly.

Additionally, the designs themselves were still in the early stages, but more challenging still was the thermoplastic used. It tended to be brittle and break down or shatter after firing a single bullet. Then, of course, was the cost. The 3D printer alone cost anywhere from $10,000-$200,000; the resulting gun, if put up for sale, would sell for upward of $11,000. For this reason, printable guns have not been of significant concern.

However, when inspiration presents itself, creativity flourishes, for better and for worse. As its creator stated, “The broad recognition of this idea seemed to flip a switch in peoples’ minds… We knew that people would make this their own.”

The Liberator kicked off an endless chain of advances in design and mechanics. Soon, a variant of the Liberator fired eight bullets at a total production cost of under $10,000. Two months later, the first printed rifle appeared with a later design firing 14 shots. The following month, a five-shot revolver was possible. Now some low-end printers are as cheap as $200, and handguns can be printed for only $25 worth of plastic. If someone were insistent on a metal weapon, CNC mills (“metal printers”) are now as low as $1,200.

Aside from becoming increasingly dangerous, 3D-printed guns are notoriously untraceable. Firearms created by their owner do not have serial numbers, and purchasing licenses are not required; the gun can never be traced to a production factory or store. It essentially appears out of thin air, resulting in a weapon that no authorized source can account for. This is very similar to what had previously been called “ghost guns” – firearms where the receiver (which usually bears the serial number) is metallically printed, and the rest of the parts are purchased a la carte and unregulated. And, while metal ghost guns are typically capable of more damage, plastic ones are even less traceable and more easily disposed of through intentional shattering or melting.

So what can or will be done about this new surge of weapons?

While there have yet to be any recorded shootings with 3D-printed firearms, it is only a matter of time. By making 3D-printed guns widely accessible to anyone with access to the equipment, anyone, including felons and domestic abusers, could be armed without background checks. While these guns may not quite match the firepower of their metal counterparts, it is only a matter of time. Think about how technologically advanced kids are these days. What is the likelihood that a student will make a 3D gun and take it into a school?

It appears that government officials don’t want to confront the issue, likely because of constitutional debates. As with other firearms, the Second Amendment assures the right to manufacture and purchase, and as of the recent settlement, the First Amendment assures the right to publish gun-making instructions under free speech. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has demanded that the government reverse its decision and plans to propose a bill regarding the legal treatment of all ghost guns, but there are countless groups and politicians who will use the amendments to challenge him.

Strict regulations that protect citizens from the atrocities of currently unregulated gun violence does not violate the 2nd Amendment. Can anyone seriously argue that the 2nd Amendment protects the unregulated, unlicensed production of a 3D printed lethal weapon? Our current laws have been continuously proven, unable to combat purchased and registered weapons let alone independently printed ones. Not to mention, when and if new laws are passed, those who seek to do others harm will create new technology or find legal loopholes to work around those regulations. We all need to stand with Senator Schumer and insist that our leaders do something to combat the threat 3D weapons can place on our safety. #NeverAgain means Never Again. Not with metal. Not with plastic. Never.

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