This is one of those blog posts that will likely be laughably obsolete within a couple of years.
It’s not exactly news that 3D printing technologies have been used to print parts of working guns. So far, the firing chamber still needs to be a piece of real metal, and can be purchased off the shelf; but the main mechanical part — where bullets are loaded and triggers are pulled and shells are ejected — can be printed at home on a common 3D printer. It is this part, usually called the lower receiver, that constitutes the legally controlled “gun”. In other words, the part of the gun that makes it a gun, and that you’re in trouble if you make without being a licensed firearm manufacturer, is the part that’s easiest to print yourself.
As of this writing (which is why I said this post will soon be obsolete) common 3D printers can only make stuff out of various plastic resins. It’s sort of possible to 3D print things out of metal, but it’s a much longer process and requires several additional steps. Metal bits can be deposited along with a resin binder, and the object then has to be infused with metal and baked, a process which requires additional hardware. But at the rate that 3D printing technology is evolving, this probably won’t be the case for very long. Femtosecond lasers are one possible technology that might make for-real metal printing available to the masses without any complicated additional steps. 3D printing already allows the construction of devices replete with moving parts all intact.
So it’s not a terrible argument when the pro-gun lobby says that it’s a fool’s errand to try and ban guns. They’re already here, and they’re going to continue to be easier and easier not just to buy, but to make.
However, one argument against this is that it’s still illegal to make your own gun, just as it’s illegal to sell pirated movies over the Internet. Web server companies that host 3D data files for guns could be open to prosecution, and that’s not trivial. The average Joe Blow can no longer easily launch some freeware program like Napster and easily download any movie or song; you have to have more specialized knowledge, and have to employ knowingly criminal intent to find the right servers and do whatever it is you do. This type of thing will likely keep the 3D gun modeling data very hard to find as well.
Obviously, anyone who really wants to do it will be able to.
However, this is not new to 3D modeling. There are many independent gunsmiths in the world, and many of these are licensed firearm manufacturers. A lot of them build reproductions of classic antique firearms; some build specialized competition weapons. It has always been the case — and will always continue to be the case — that a few simple metalworking tools allow anyone to manufacturer any type of gun they want. You do not need a 3D printer. You do not need to wait for 3D printing to become better. You can, right now, get ahold of some secondhand tooling and manufacture any type of firearm you wish, with nothing more than knowledge and skill. Unlike 3D modeling data files, which are likely to become subject to laws, conventional gun blueprints are widely available in books.
Don’t forget that the Oklahoma City bombing was accomplished with a rented truck, ammonium nitrate fertilizer [Note: this was written prior to the tragic Texas plant explosion on April 17], and nitromethane racing fuel, plus a trigger of commercially available explosive. It is a fool’s errand to try and prevent such attacks by controlling the materials, which, for practical reasons of running a society, must continue to be commercially available. It is somewhat less of a fool’s errand to block legal access to 3D firearm data files. But it remains a fool’s errand to prevent anyone from doing anything with a 100-year-old manually operated gunsmith’s lathe to do whatever they want to do in their basement.
3D gun printing? It’s sensational, it’s alarming, and it makes for great press; but it will never be the only way for criminals to create their own guns.