Five things to know about 3D printed guns

Five things to know about 3D printed guns
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A federal judge on Tuesday blocked a company from releasing 3D printed gun plans online, sparking a battle that will likely test the limits of America’s gun and digital data laws.

U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik issued a temporary restraining order barring Defense Distributed from releasing 3D printed gun blueprints online, hours before the company was slated to post them on Aug. 1. The order came in response to a lawsuit from eight Democratic attorneys general

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While some say 3D printed firearms should be protected under the Second Amendment, others insist they pose an extremely serious threat to public safety.  

By the time the federal judge issued the national injunction on Tuesday, thousands of people had already downloaded the plans for nine different models of guns from Defense Distributed’s website.

The issue will go back to court on Aug. 10.

As the courts grapple with how far America’s relatively weak gun laws can stretch, here are five things to know about 3D printed guns.

There are no background checks for 3D printed guns

The widespread distribution of 3D printed gun plans would allow anyone with access to the internet and a 3D printer to own a gun. At least for now, printing a gun does not require a background check or any other documentation.

Under the Gun Control Act, it is technically illegal for multiple categories of people to own guns, including felons, domestic abusers and drug users. Some say weak laws on 3D printing would make it that much easier for such individuals to obtain firearms.

“It’s bad enough that in the majority of states you can purchase a traditional firearm without undergoing a background check to ensure you are not prohibited,” Cassandra Crifasi, a gun-owning researcher for Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told Vox’s German Lopez. “The availability of 3D printed guns creates yet another loophole through which prohibited individuals could more easily obtain firearms.”

Defense Distributed's Cody Wilson and his supporters have argued that terrorists and criminals are unlikely to choose 3D printing guns over participating in illegal arms trading, as 3D printing is costly and confusing.

They are technically illegal in the U.S

It is illegal under federal law to assemble guns that evade detection by metal detectors, meaning all-plastic 3D printed guns are prohibited.

However, creators have side-stepped this stipulation by inserting small pieces of metal into the bodies of the plastic firearms.

It is perfectly legal to assemble guns at home for personal use without a license, documentation or a background check. However, a license is required to produce guns for sale or distribution. This is part of the reason the Defense Distributed plans would not cost money. 

Indiana University law professor Jody Lyneé Madeira, who specializes in the Second Amendment, told The Hill that gun kits, which allow people to assemble firearms in their homes, are a far more pertinent example of guns that do not require background checks.

"One of the most perhaps unregulated ways people have been making guns at home is through kits that they get," Madeira said. "The kits that people can get to build guns at home actually make weapons that are much more effective and dangerous than most of the firearms that can be printed by 3D printers." 

The State Department last month ruled that posting 3D printed gun plans online does not violate export laws that ban the foreign distribution of firearms.

Policymakers have scrambled to identify other laws that would ban 3D printed guns in the U.S., but so far, they’ve come up short. The follow-up court case on Aug. 10 will likely provide more insight into potential grounds for barring or allowing the practice. 

They are undetectable — which critics say is part of the problem

Gun control advocates often point out that 3D printed guns, also called “ghost guns,” do not have serial numbers or any connection to licensed gun manufacturers, which would make it more difficult to trace them in the event of a crime.

“We don’t want officers to go out to a scene of a crime only to find a firearm without a serial number and no way to trace it back to the source,” Robin Lloyd, the director of government affairs at anti-gun violence organization Giffords, said in a statement on Wednesday. “Serial numbers on firearms are critical to helping us catch criminals, and the proliferation of this technology could end up making our communities more dangerous.”

All firearms subject to the National Firearms Act must have serial numbers on them, but 3D printed guns seem to exist outside of the law’s purview. 

Supporters claim they are an issue of First and Second Amendment rights

Wilson says 3D printed guns are all about free speech and gun rights, and he believes he has won the battle over how to frame the debate.

“It seems like I’ve crystallized the terms of the debate according to how I wanted it,” Wilson told The New York Times this week. “The argument that I’m making, although not always very well, is that what I’m doing is actually a pretty mainline American idea.”

Wilson and other supporters of 3D printed guns say they should be able to distribute their blueprints under the First and Second Amendments.

"I believe that I am championing the Second Amendment in the 21st century," Wilson told CBS’s “This Morning" on Thursday. He has also said the Obama administration infringed on his freedom of expression when they forced him to take down the blueprints in 2013.

This spotlight on the First Amendment might get Wilson into trouble, however, according to Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University who spoke to the Times. Lytton said Wilson could be vulnerable to negligence lawsuits because he frames himself as a purveyor of digital data, rather than a firearms distributor.

Madeira noted the Second Amendment does not extend internationally, which means there could be grounds to ban foreign IP addresses from accessing them. 

3D printed guns are inefficient and costly to make — but this could change soon

The cheapest 3D printer goes for several hundred dollars, but the high-end printers needed to produce weapons go for hundreds of thousands, or even millions, according to 3D printing expert David Gewirtz, who teaches computer science at University of California, Berkley.  

Gewirtz said 3D printing a gun is a long and arduous process that takes upwards of 90 hours. 

"3D printers lay down material pretty slowly," Gewirtz said. "The more complex the print, the better the chance of the print failing and these are complex prints."

Even then, the 3D printers available to consumers are limited to making plastic guns, and the strongest material available is the plastic that is used in Legos. 

"Could you shoot a bullet made out of a gun made out of Lego plastic?" Gewirtz said. "You're getting a good feeling for how the technology is today. For example, you could make a handle with that plastic just fine, but the barrel and the part that explodes and shoots a bullet just would not be possible." 

The plastic 3D printed guns are prone to shattering unexpectedly and shoot significantly less efficiently than regular firearms.

Some have said opponents are getting ahead of themselves when they call 3D printed guns a “threat to public safety,” considering there are not very many of them and they are hard to come by. 

"You're looking at maybe the ability to shoot one bullet, maybe two with a reload time," Gewirtz said. "You're looking at using it as a threat far more than something that can actually cause harm." 

The technology for 3D printed guns has come a long way since Wilson printed the first functional gun in 2013, however, and it will only continue to improve over the next several years.