Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

3D-printed guns explained: How they work, why they’re controversial, and what’s next

Why 3D-printed guns have been in the headlines, and how they work.

In this May 10, 2013, file photo, Cody Wilson holds what he calls a Liberator pistol that was completely made on a 3D-printer at his home in Austin, Texas.
In this May 10, 2013, file photo, Cody Wilson holds what he calls a Liberator pistol that was completely made on a 3D-printer at his home in Austin, Texas.Read moreJay Janner / Austin American-Statesman via AP, File

If you think the hubbub over 3D-printable guns seems new and confusing, you're not alone.

The issue came to front pages nationwide after a federal judge in Washington state Tuesday issued a temporary restraining order against Defense Distributed, a group that wanted to post files on the Internet that would allow people to make guns at home with the help of a 3D printer. But this injunction is just the latest development in a dispute that's been years in the making.

Of course, this issue has all the hallmarks of the nation's long-simmering broader debate on guns. But it muddies the conversation even further with new details to consider, including freedom of speech and the fast-paced development of new technologies.

Here's a quick guide to get you up to speed.

Why are we talking about this now?

The national conversation has much to do with Cody Wilson, the 30-year-old director of Defense Distributed, which describes itself as a "a non-profit, private defense firm principally engaged in the research, design, development, and manufacture of products and services for the benefit of the American rifleman."

Wilson has been fighting the federal government for the right to post the gun "blueprints" online since 2013, when he was first blocked by the Obama administration, which cited export laws. But earlier this summer, the federal government reversed course and the group was allowed to post some of the "blueprints" last week — something Pennsylvania, New Jersey and a handful of other states tried to block with a lawsuit.

Additional files were planned to be posted Wednesday but were blocked by U.S. District Court Judge Robert S. Lasnik. A follow-up hearing is scheduled for later this month, according to the New York Times.

>> READ MORE: Federal judge blocks publication of 3D-printed gun blueprints, the website administered by the group, now features this message: "This site, after legally committing its files to the public domain through a license from the U.S. Department of State, has been ordered shut down by a federal judge in the Western District of Washington."

Plans for 3D printable guns made available by Wilson were downloaded more than 100,000 times when first published five years ago, according to the Associated Press. The files he posted on Friday were downloaded about 2,500 times before the judge's order, Wilson told the New York Times.

What’s the controversy?

Regular guns are subject to a host of federal, state, and local regulations on manufacturing, distribution, and possession. 3D guns can be made by anyone with access to a 3D printer.

There's no systematic tracking information, such a serial number or a registration. Because they are plastic, they may be able to bypass airport metal detectors. Because some can be disassembled, they may be able to bypass X-ray machines. Critics worry that this level of accessibility would pose a large public-safety threat.

But for Wilson, it's about free speech.

"Americans have the right to this data," he told the Inquirer and Daily News on Sunday. "We have the right to share it."

>> READ MORE: Going ballistic: The war is on against 3D gun printers | Stu Bykofsky

In his ruling, Lasnik acknowledged that there were "serious First Amendment issues," the New York Times reported.

What are politicians saying?

President Trump tweeted early Tuesday that he was "looking into 3D Plastic Guns being sold to the public."

"Already spoke to NRA, doesn't seem to make much sense!" he wrote.

Hogan Gidley, deputy White House press secretary, said Tuesday that it's illegal to own or make a "wholly plastic gun of any kind," the Washington Post reported.

Gidley said that the administration "will continue to look at all options available to us to do what is necessary to protect Americans while also supporting the First and Second Amendments" and that Trump "is committed to the safety and security of all Americans and considers this his highest responsibility."

After an emergency court hearing Sunday, Pennsylvania Gov. Wolf tweeted that "the possibility of untraceable guns in the hands of unknown users is too daunting to stand by and not take action," while Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro called the accessibility to 3D-printed guns "an existential threat."

New Jersey and Pennsylvania were among many states that also filed for injunctions to block access to the blueprints.

The White House criticized the Justice Department for making the settlement that allowed Defense Distributed to post the schematics. The settlement was made "without the president's approval," Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at Wednesday's briefing.

"The president is glad this effort was delayed to give more time to review the issue," Sanders said. Echoing the NRA's stance, she also said the administration supports the law already on the books that prohibits wholly plastic firearms.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is "a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file." It requires a 3D printer and raw plastic, a lot of steps, various types of software and technical know-how.

First, a digital 3D model of the desired product is created, usually using a computer-aided design (CAD) file. Next, slicing software is needed to digitally divide the model into minuscule horizontal rows. This divided design is then fed into the 3D printer, which uses melted plastic or other material to build the model, tiny row by tiny row.

The first 3D printing patents were issued in the 1980s, and today the machines are used in various professional fields. Industrial 3D printers have been used to make car parts, prosthetic limbs, footwear and other less-controversial products.

According to Popular Mechanics, weapons created by 3D printers are not usable on their own. The printer creates what is essentially a plastic shell, and the user must manually add metal components to turn it into a working weapon.

Experts are skeptical

While a publicly accessible blueprint for 3D printed guns puts the ability to create a deadly weapon into anybody's hands, experts don't believe that such information will cause a dramatic uptick in plastic firearms.

To print a gun, one must have the technical knowledge and access to a 3D printer, which can cost anywhere from $200 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The printing and assembly process can take about 35 hours.

>> READ MORE: 3D-printed guns not a big threat, say those who've tried it 

Kyle Mizokami of Popular Mechanics argued that "3D printing gun parts is the most complicated way for a criminal to get his hands on a firearm." Mizokami wrote that it would be much easier and cheaper for a person to steal a gun, buy one on the black market, or construct one from existing parts.

In addition to a complicated printing process, the final product can be flimsy if lower-grade materials are used. In 2013, an Australian police department tested printed guns, which exploded as soon as the trigger was pulled.

Justine McDaniel contributed reporting.