Future Tense

Homemade Guns Are a Much Bigger Threat Than 3D-Printed Firearms

3D-printed guns are expensive, hard to make, barely work, and not worth lawmakers’ recent vitriol.

A blue plastic handgun with yellow plastic handguns off to the side.
Seized plastic handguns created using 3D-printing technology are seen at Kanagawa police station in Yokohama, Japan, on May 8, 2014. Kyodo/Reuters

The long-simmering debate over 3D-printed guns boiled over again this week, but it’s been clear for a while that something was going to happen. In June, 3D-gun-printing pioneer Cody Wilson and his organization Defense Distributed settled a yearslong legal case with the State Department about whether sharing the plans for 3D printing a gun violated export control laws. With that case out of the way, Wilson was free to go back to what he was doing in 2013, when his organization published the plans for the “Liberator,” the first 3D-printed handgun in the world. When those plans were first published, they were reportedly downloaded more than 100,000 times in just two days, at which time the feds ordered Wilson to take them down. But after Wilson followed directions, the plans quickly popped up elsewhere online. The government’s desire to keep the gun-printing plans off the internet backfired.

Wilson had planned to put new files online Wednesday. But early this week, lawmakers remembered that 3D-printed guns are a thing and started to react in unison. Attorneys general from eight states sued the Trump administration to try to keep Wilson from publishing his gun plans again. The lawsuit was filed in the federal district court in Seattle with Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson leading the charge. On Tuesday, a Seattle federal judge issued a nationwide temporary restraining order to prevent Wilson from publishing new gun plans online. That injunction, however, didn’t affect the 10 files for 3D-printed guns and gun parts that Defense Distributed published days earlier. Nor did it cover the booming world of do-it-yourself gun-making that Wilson has been cashing in on since he was ordered to remove his 3D-printing plans off the internet.

Still, lawmakers applauded themselves for stopping Wilson. “These ghost guns are untraceable, virtually undetectable, and, without today’s victory, available to any felon, domestic abuser or terrorist,” Ferguson said Tuesday in a statement. “I hope the President does the right thing and directs his administration to change course.”

On Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump weighed in, too. “I am looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public,” he wrote on Twitter. “Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense!” To be clear, no one is talking about selling 3D-printed plastic guns, which, it’s true, doesn’t make a lot of sense. The debate is about making them. And after Trump tweeted, members of Congress started to chime in, too. “Trump must say ‘no’ to the NRA & permanently halt 3D ghost gun designs that enable terrorists & criminals to evade detectors & tracing,” Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said on Twitter. “Blood will be on the hands of all who fail to act,” he continued in a subsequent tweet. Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts tweeted, “Trump could stop this right now. If he doesn’t, Aug. 1, 2018 will mark the beginning of a new, supercharged era of gun violence & he will be directly responsible for it.” He later tweeted using the hashtag #StopDownloadableGuns. Not catchy, but it works.

Downloadable gun plans require not only access to a high-quality 3D printer but also enough tech expertise to navigate the process of going from downloading a design to loading it up in software. If lawmakers are truly worried about the threat of unregistered firearms, they should focus instead on the bustling market of unfinished firearms. They’re, commonly called 80 percent lowers, in reference to the fact that these kits include guns that are about 80 percent complete but don’t constitute a full firearm and therefore don’t require a serial number or background check to be sold. The market started booming after the call for gun reform following the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in February, and Wilson benefited from that boom. In 2014, after his 3D-printed-gun plans were kicked offline (though they repopulated shortly afterward), he got into the unfinished gun business with Ghost Gunner. Ghost Gunner is a milling machine designed specifically for building gun receivers, the part of the gun that’s regulated and carries a serial number when bought from a licensed gun seller. They’re for sale now on GhostGunner.net for $2,000, or with a deposit of $250 and a 12-month payment plan. Wilson also sells kits of unfinished receivers and parts to build a working AR-15 and handguns.

The 80 percent and do-it-yourself gun market has been able to blossom within a small loophole of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which made it illegal to build a firearm and sell it without a license. But the catch is that it’s legal if you make the firearm and keep it—no background check, serial number, or seller’s license needed. Do-it-yourself gun-making has been hard to regulate, largely because it’s hard to regulate componentry, and it’s near impossible to draw the line between a piece of metal that might go into a gun and one that actually does. And to make the prospect of regulating DIY guns even harder, there are already so many homemade guns out there it’s almost impossible to know that someone has one unless there’s an incident or someone has been stockpiling them to sell. The sad fact is that the more gun regulations pass, the more at-home gun-making kits sell. In California, for example, it’s illegal to possess an assault weapon like an AR-15, and Wilson told me in an interview earlier this year that California is his biggest market.

Despite what lawmakers were saying this week, it’s not clear that 3D-printed guns pose a serious threat. Plans for printing 3D weaponry never disappeared from the internet as a result of Wilson’s legal challenges, and it seems that 3D-printed guns don’t even work very well—when they do work. Police in Australia used a high-end 3D printer to make one, and when they fired it, the gun exploded upon the bullet leaving the chamber. People who print guns and try to shoot them might be more likely to blow off their hands than fire multiple bullets.

If lawmakers are concerned about threats having to do with 3D-printed weaponry, they might consider banning 3D-printed bump stocks, too, which are attachments that can be added to semi-automatic rifles to make them fire faster. Those might work better than a fully 3D-printed gun. But 80 percent lower kits remain a much bigger threat—and should be a higher priority for lawmakers.

Banning files from the internet doesn’t make much sense, anyway. Digital files can be reproduced with the click of a button. That’s how the internet works. Lawmakers should know this by now.