Last Tuesday, a federal district court judge in Washington State issued a temporary restraining order, barring the implementation of a settlement agreement that would have allowed a company named Defense Distributed to publish computer-aided design files for the production of 3D-printed firearms. These files would enable virtually any individual who owns a 3D printer to produce a mostly plastic single-shot pistol. The company would also have been allowed, under the settlement, to continue posting blueprints for 3D-printed handguns as it develops them.
The revelation that it is possible to produce a functioning firearm with a 3D printer led to a national scare, prompting attorneys general from eight states and the District of Columbia to file the lawsuit seeking the injunction that prevents the implementation of the settlement agreement, thus prohibiting Defense Distributed from posting any design files, at least temporarily. The scare also prompted several United States senators to file a bill that would ban the online publication of designs for 3D-printed guns.
The Trump administration has come under attack for agreeing to the settlement that permits the publication of 3D-printable gun designs. According to many critics, this has—for the first time—made it possible for virtually anyone to produce a functioning firearm in the comfort of their own home. Furthermore, critics claim, it allows individuals to manufacture firearms that are all-plastic and therefore undetectable by security equipment.
Let’s face it: the idea of people printing their own 3D guns is inherently scary. However, this is a scare that has been greatly overblown. There are reasons to be frightened, but the potential publication by Defense Distributed of computer files for 3D-printed pistols should be near the bottom of the list.
First, there is nothing new about the publication of design files for 3D-printable guns, and the injunction against Defense Distributed will not prevent anyone from viewing its design files. The cat is already out of the bag. Design files for the Liberator (single-shot pistol) have been posted on other internet sites. Files for four- and six-shot 3D-printed pistols are also available.
Second, 3D-printer designs are not enabling people to produce guns in their own homes. They already have that ability. The internet has for years provided access to blueprints for DIY guns and people have been producing homemade guns for decades. There are numerous internet sites where you can download instructions to produce firearms. These tend to use materials that are much more durable than plastic so you have a real weapon, not a gun with a plastic frame that cannot withstand more than one or at the most six shots. The truth is that you can’t manufacture an AR-15 rifle solely using a 3D printer, but you can make yourself an AR-15 by following relatively straightforward internet instructions. The bottom line is that there are already ways for anyone who wants to manufacture a gun to do so without having to purchase a 3D printer, and they can do it much less expensively and end up with a much more durable weapon.
In fact, a large number of the federally licensed gun producers listed in the annual ATF manufacturing report are not companies, but individuals. In 2014, there were 942 listed gun manufacturers who produced fewer than 10 guns in the entire year. Private individuals can and are producing their own firearms.
Third, the perceived need to prohibit plastic-only 3D-printable guns that cannot be detected by security equipment is not clear, because manufacturing, selling, or possessing such a gun is already prohibited by federal law. The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1998 makes it a felony offense to produce or own a firearm that cannot easily be identified by metal detectors and X-ray machines.
Fourth, 3D-printable gun designs are only one-half of what Defense Distributed offers for home firearm production. One can produce a metal, fully functional AR-15 lower receiver using a computer numeric control (CNC) milling machine which uses a rotary cutter to essentially mold a gun out of a workpiece by shaving off parts according to a computer-controlled pattern.
The reality is that if all firearms were made by 3D printers, it would be a far safer country, because these weapons can only be fired a few times, are inaccurate, and probably pose as much of a danger to their owners as to others. Furthermore, most (if not all) of the individuals who are interested in 3D printing of guns are true gun aficionados, not criminals. It is far easier and much more effective for someone who wants to commit a crime to obtain a firearm legally or to purchase a trafficked gun.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t closely monitor 3D-printing technology and be concerned about the development of technology that may allow the manufacture of highly functional and truly undetectable firearms. But the reality is that right now, what should scare the public is not 3D-printable weapons but the run-of-the-mill commercially manufactured firearms that are involved in more than 36,000 fatalities each year. What should scare the attorneys general and US senators is that in most of their states, people who have a history of violent crime already have legal access to “regular” firearms that are not produced using a 3D printer but are much more lethal.
More specifically, what should really scare us is not the availability of firearms or even the type of firearms available or how they are manufactured, but the weak legislation in most states that allows people who are at a high risk of violence to possess guns. All stakeholders—including gun owners and even the NRA—agree that people who are a danger to themselves or others should not have access to firearms. But few politicians are willing to support laws to enforce that principle.
For example, last week, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson asked the Trump Administration: “Why are you allowing dangerous criminals easy access to weapons?” But in his own state, a person under a permanent restraining order because of a risk of domestic violence to a dating partner has easy and legal access to firearms and cannot be denied a concealed carry license. In fact, there are 38 states in which you can buy a gun without a background check, 29 states in which a misdemeanor assault conviction does not automatically disqualify you from possessing a gun, and 23 states in which you can carry a gun even if you have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor.
3D-printed guns may seem scary, but we should be more frightened by who is allowed to own commercially manufactured ones.
Michael Siegel, M.D., is a School of Public Health Professor of Community Health Sciences.