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The battle to stop 3D-printed guns, explained

Policymakers are trying to stop the spread of firearms that could bypass federal and state laws.

A 3D-printed gun.
A 3D-printed gun.
Keith Beaty/Toronto Star via Getty Images

With 3D printers, getting a gun could be as easy as downloading it. A person could find a schematic for a firearm online, plug it into a 3D printer with the right materials, and boom — a gun is created on the spot. No background check required, no serial number to trace the gun if it’s used in a crime.

Some policymakers are trying to prevent this method of getting firearms from going mainstream. In July, they landed a big victory: US District Judge Robert Lasnik in Seattle issued a restraining order that halted an activist’s plans to release 3D-printed gun designs online, arguing, “There is a possibility of irreparable harm because of the way these guns can be made.” Lasnik effectively extended that order on Monday.

After Monday’s order, though, the blueprints’ owner, libertarian activist Cody Wilson, found a workaround: Instead of publishing the blueprints for free on the internet, he’s selling them (for a price people can pick on their own) and distributing the blueprints via a mailed flash drive or, potentially, email or secure download links.

While Lasnik forced the State Department to continue blocking Wilson from publishing his 3D-printed gun blueprints, Lasnik also wrote that the blueprint files “can be emailed, mailed, securely transmitted, or otherwise published within the United States.” The idea is that the regulation used to block Wilson only stops an international transfer, while these other means of distribution can be solely domestic.

The wide release of the 3D-printed gun blueprints has become an issue now in large part due to President Donald Trump’s administration.

The previous administration, under President Barack Obama, had forced Wilson to stop publishing these blueprints on his website, Wilson sued the administration in hopes of republishing his schematics. The case seemed like a win for the government, with multiple courts initially ruling in the government’s favor.

But once the Trump administration came in with its gun-friendly politics, the Justice Department abruptly agreed to a settlement — giving Wilson and his nonprofit, Defense Distributed, “essentially everything they wanted,” Andy Greenberg reported for Wired. The deal allowed Wilson to publish his blueprints starting in August, and paid him $40,000 for his legal costs.

A court, however, put Wilson’s plans on hold — at least until he found the latest workaround.

Regardless of how this shakes out, there’s a question of just how much this is delaying the inevitable. As 3D printing technology improves, experts are worried that these guns will become cheap, accessible, and, crucially for would-be criminals, untraceable. And as much as any government may try, it’s very hard to stop the flow of information on the internet — and, in fact, some of these 3D-printed gun designs are already available online right now.

Why 3D-printed guns are getting attention now

Concerns about 3D-printed guns have been around since the dawn of 3D printing, which essentially lets anyone plug in a blueprint and, with the right materials, the product is, well, printed out. (Mashable has a good explainer on 3D printers.)

But a few things have held back the fears from becoming widespread reality. For one, 3D printing is fairly expensive. The most robust printers, which would likely be required for a demanding product like a gun, can cost thousands of dollars. And even if someone has a 3D printer, the quality of the printed product can be shoddy, and that person may not have the knowhow or blueprints to actually design and print out a functioning gun.

Some of those problems — cost and quality — will be solved over time, as 3D printing technology inevitably becomes cheaper and better.

The remaining problem is what Cody Wilson was interested in solving on his own: In 2013, Wilson created what, according to Wired, is believed to be the first fully 3D-printed gun. Once Wilson successfully tested it, he uploaded the blueprint to his website.

That’s when the Obama administration stepped in. Leveraging rules in the International Trade in Arms Regulations, the State Department essentially accused Wilson of exporting weapons without a license. This forced Wilson to take Defcad offline, and he faced the possibility of fines and jail time.

Wilson, however, did not give up. He sued the Obama administration, arguing that barring him from publishing the blueprints inhibited his First Amendment rights. Many outside observers believed Wilson would lose, with courts in preliminary rulings coming out against him.

For Wilson, this was not just a business opportunity — it was a political crusade. To get an idea of Wilson’s politics here, consider that he expected Hillary Clinton would win the White House in 2016 and, when she did, she would begin a mass-scale crackdown on firearms in the US. That would force Wilson, in his view, to take a stand, Wired reported:

If that happened, as Wilson tells it, he was ready to launch his Defcad repository, regardless of the outcome of his lawsuit, and then defend it in an armed standoff. “I’d call a militia out to defend the server, Bundy-style,” Wilson says calmly, in the first overt mention of planned armed violence I’ve ever heard him make. “Our only option was to build an infrastructure where we had one final suicidal mission, where we dumped everything into the internet,” Wilson says.

But Wilson never had to make his stand. Clinton did not win the presidency. And, in fact, the new administration, led by Trump, backed off its legal threats to Wilson entirely — letting him move forward with publishing his 3D-printed gun blueprints on August 1.

The upcoming publication terrified lawmakers around the country. Trump himself seemed concerned, tweeting on July 31, “I am looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public. Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense!”

State attorneys general across the country pushed for courts to block the release of the blueprints. They succeeded, at least temporarily, hours before the designs’ release.

It’s unclear what comes next. Will the court order hold up through appeals? Will Wilson’s way around the order — of selling the blueprints and distributing them directly to buyers — withstand potential new legal challenges? Will the Trump administration take any action on its own? We just don’t know yet.

Experts are seriously worried about 3D-printed guns

So how worried should people be? To answer this, I asked four gun policy experts about 3D-printed guns. All of them said they are seriously concerned about these firearms’ potential.

Cassandra Crifasi, from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, captured the general sentiment: “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. The availability of 3D-printed guns creates yet another loophole through which prohibited individuals could more easily obtain firearms.”

In short, 3D-printed guns make it easy to bypass a host of state and federal laws. Printing a gun doesn’t require a background check or any documentation, offering a workaround for people who are legally prohibited from buying a gun now due to, say, a criminal record or history of mental illness. A 3D-printed gun can also be easily made without a serial number or anything that would make these firearms easily traceable if they’re used in a crime.

This, experts predict, will make the guns very attractive to criminals. “My guess is that the first movers will be terrorists and insurrectionists who are determined to destroy our current system of government,” Philip Cook, a gun policy expert at Duke University, told me. “Over the longer term, if this form of manufacturing becomes cheap enough, it may become a major source of supply for street gangs and other criminals.”

Guns are already pretty available in the US, with estimates suggesting that there are more firearms in America than there are people. And the country has much looser gun laws than comparable nations like the UK, Canada, and Japan. The concern is that 3D-printed guns will make firearms even more available by creating a means to bypass the US’s already weak gun laws with little effort.

There’s good reason to believe that will lead to more gun deaths: A broad body of research has found that where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths.

As a breakthrough analysis by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins in the 1990s found, it’s not even that the US has more crime than other developed countries. This chart, based on data from Jeffrey Swanson at Duke University, shows that the US is not an outlier when it comes to overall crime:

A chart showing crime rates among wealthy nations.

Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.

”A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar,” Zimring and Hawkins wrote. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”

A chart showing homicides among wealthy nations.

This is in many ways intuitive: People of every country get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. But in the US, it’s much more likely that someone will get angry during an argument and be able to pull out a gun and kill someone.

The mass availability of 3D-printed guns would only exacerbate this problem by making it easier for someone to have a firearm to pull out in the first place, whether in the course of an argument or the commission of a crime.

Wilson, for his part, said his intent is not to make it easier for criminals to get guns or to enable more gun violence. But he sees 3D-printed guns as a means to counter the movement, particularly after the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting, to enact stricter gun laws in the US.

As Wilson told Wired, “All this Parkland stuff, the students, all these dreams of ‘common sense gun reforms’? No. The internet will serve guns, the gun is downloadable. No amount of petitions or die-ins or anything else can change that.”

Stopping 3D-printed guns in the long term will be very hard, if not impossible

For all the worry about 3D-printed guns, it’s not clear how much good any of the worrying will do.

The reality is that 3D printers are becoming better and cheaper over time. A few years back, 3D printers were inaccessible for the typical consumer. Nowadays, people can buy them for hundreds of dollars. These printers often aren’t very good — not good enough to build a gun, anyway — but the increasing availability shows where this is all going.

Meanwhile, the government can try as hard as it wants to stop 3D-printed gun schematics from ending up on the internet, but the reality is these blueprints will likely become public on a large scale at some point. Think about how much governments have struggled to stop websites like Pirate Bay, which make it easy to illegally download music, movies, video games, books, and much more. It’s just extremely easy to share information and data on the internet.

In fact, there already are websites hosting 3D printer designs for guns, and sites dedicated to hosting Wilson’s files, despite court battles holding up Wilson’s own ability to republish the documents.

And Wilson, of course, found his own loophole by selling the blueprints and distributing them directly to buyers.

That doesn’t mean governments are totally helpless here.

One federal law already addresses some of the concerns: The Undetectable Firearms Act bans guns that can’t be spotted by walk-through metal detectors. This means all-plastic 3D-printed guns are technically illegal, although there are workarounds, such as adding a metal piece to the firearm.

The government could take further steps. Chelsea Parsons, the vice president of gun violence prevention policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, drew a comparison to counterfeit currency: “I think the next step is to work with the technology industry to find solutions to deter promulgation of these blueprints. An analogy is the approach taken by software programs like Adobe Photoshop to prevent people from creating counterfeit currency. We should engage with the 3D printer manufacturers to have this type of blocking software installed in all 3D printers sold in the US to prevent this technology from being used to produce guns.”

Jon Stokes, a tech journalist and gun enthusiast, argued at TechCrunch that this will likely prove a fruitless endeavor because “it will be hard for these machines to reliably tell what’s a gun-related file and what isn’t,” and, more importantly, “open-source firmware will quickly become available for the most popular printing and milling machines, so that determined users can ‘jailbreak’ them and use them however they like.”

Stokes suggested that the government may ultimately try to regulate other parts of the gun trade, particularly ammo, and eventually focus on possession — by, for example, requiring a license to carry a firearm.

“The focus will shift to vetting and permits for simple possession, much like the gun owner licensing scheme I outlined in Politico,” Stokes predicted. “We’ll give up on trying to trace guns and ammunition, and focus more on authorizing people to possess guns, and on catching and prosecuting unauthorized possession. You’ll get the firearm equivalent of a marijuana card from the state, and then it won’t matter if you bought your gun from an authorized dealer or made it yourself at home.”

Whatever the government does, it will require rethinking how it currently enforces gun laws. Duke’s Cook explained: “The only hope that I see is to clarify the legal boundaries — and in particular establish that it is illegal to manufacture, sell, or carry guns that violate the standards in state and federal law. The success of this effort would depend on law enforcement effort, including both police and courts. But that would require a reorientation of our current priorities.”

This won’t stop 3D-printed guns altogether, just as governments have not been able to stop counterfeit currency or online piracy entirely. But it will make the process of printing out a gun and possessing it a bit more difficult and perhaps more expensive — and perhaps delay the technology from becoming widespread.

“A lot of bad things could happen in the not-distant future that are, to a large extent, very difficult or near impossible to control,” Daniel Webster, the director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told me. “I favor more years with fewer 3D-printer-made ghost guns. But prepare for what you think is inevitable and pass laws with stiff penalties for making or possessing guns outside of US laws and regulations.”

Still, I’m skeptical. I can’t say with full confidence where this is all going. But if the recent history of the internet is any guide, stopping people from sharing just about anything — whether it’s pirated music or a 3D-printed gun blueprint — is going to be very hard, if not impossible. And that may lead to a future with more gun deaths.