The Hype Over 3D Printed Gun Parts

December 08, 2012

By Will Grant

Courtesy Defense Distributed

Three-dimensional printed plastic gun parts are getting a lot of headlines these days. And like most conversations that involve guns, people are quick to bring up gun-control laws. Most of those people are missing the points.

Some see printed guns as a threat: if any one can print a firearm in their basement, what’s keeping terrorists and whackos from doing it? Others see printing guns as an expression of freedom: I’m entitled to manufacture guns for my own personal use, and therefore it’s none of the government’s damn business what I do in my basement.

At the center of the debate is a group called Defense Distributed—a loose collective of engineers, designers, and a lawyer prototyping plastic firearms components with a 3D printer. In a project called Wiki Weapon, they’ve been experimenting with plans of a printed lower receiver for an AR-15 downloaded from the website Thingiverse.

On an AR carbine, the only component regulated by the federal government is the lower receiver. Which is the part

Courtesy Defense Distributed

with the serial number on it. Which is why the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tracks it. Which is exactly the reason Defense Distributed is printing it.

Cody Wilson is the director of Defense Distributed, which is now 501(c)(3) pending organization. A second-year law student at the University of Texas at Austin, Wilson has organized more than dozen people to help with his project. From software gurus in Florida and Kansas to an engineer in Amsterdam, support has come from high and low alike.

“We get lots of cheerleading from Russia. Guys saying, ‘go, go!’ You can tell they want their guns back,’” Wilson says. “And we get a lot of hate coming from Germany and the UK.”

In September, Wilson was invited to speak at a technology conference in the UK. When he talked about his project, the crowd disapproved. Ten days later, the company he was leasing his 3D printer from, Stratasys, confiscated the printer, citing a lack of federal firearms license.

“It is the policy of Stratasys not to knowingly allow its printers to be used for illegal purposes,” the company’s legal counsel wrote to Wilson. “However, we do not intend to engage in a legal debate with you.”

As per the Gun Control Act of 1968, anyone who manufactures or sells guns or ammunition needs an FFL. But you don’t need a FFL to produce firearms for your own use. There’s also nothing in the law that says it’s illegal to freely distribute firearm schematics over the Internet. Defense Distributed never intended to sell its products. For what it wants to do, Defense Distributed doesn’t technically need an FFL—though Wilson applied for a Type 3 and Type 7 license about two months ago.

Courtesy Defense Distributed

Defense Distributed’s latest receiver was made with an Objet printer using photopolymer material. The receiver was functional for six rounds—one test shot and the first five of a ten-round magazine. On the sixth shot, the rearward force of the bolt carrier group broke the buffer tube threading of the lower receiver. The homemade video shows the experiment.

Defense Distributed’s next version will be printed on a cheaper FDM (fused deposition molding) printer using thermoplastics. Wilson and his team expect that thermoplastics will be better suited to the job.

A lot of the blowhard rhetoric surrounding printed gun parts is that they’ll be undetectable by metal detectors, will violate the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, also known as the Plastic Guns Law. But plastic gun parts, particularly AR lower receivers, have been available for years.

The now-defunct company Professional Ordnance made a family of firearms known as Carbon 15, and they were some of the first such rifles made from something other than metal. The receivers as well as several other parts, which received poor reviews, were made entirely of carbon fiber.

“Carbon 15 really left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth,” says Kino Davis, an firearms consultant from Tucson. “The receivers were made from short-fiber CRP [carbon-reinforced plastic] which is nowhere near as strong as the laminated, long-fiber panels that we think of on race cars and airplanes… Probably the biggest problem though, was that Carbon 15 used several proprietary parts and had some problems with bolts and other parts breaking… I think a lot of folks just associated these problems and the ‘carbon plastic’ name with each other .”

Cavalry Arms was one of the most famous manufacturers of plastic lowers until it lost its license over illegal machine gun sales. But the plastic lower Cavalry Arms sold was attached to the buttstock, which eliminated the problem Defense Distributed ran into.

Criticism of a plastic firearm component aside, the fact that printed guns will not have serial numbers is troubling for some. But just like plastic gun parts, there are legal ways to get your hands on a gun without a serial number.

In Oceanside, Calif., Ares Armor makes it easy for you to make your own gun. They’ll sell you an 80-percent completed AR lower, starting at $80, and help you finish the last 20 percent at their on-site facilities. Three Sundays a month, the company hosts what it calls Build Parties, after which you have a homemade, completely sterile AR lower receiver and can now assemble a gun without a serial number.

And if you think guns without serial numbers are rare, think again.

“Let’s just say there are very many of these [guns without serial numbers] being pushed out into the public,” says Ares Armor founder Dimiti Karras, a Marine Corps veteran. “We probably sell 2,000 [unfinished lowers] a month.”

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms took an early interest in Ares Armor, which was established three years ago. Every so often, ATF agents pay a visit to Ares Armor, and Karras has invited them in to look at the products. Rumor has it, once the feds saw the rifle components, they wanted one for themselves.

Any citizen in good standing can make a gun, including Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed. While gun companies may not like that, it is and always has been the law. But they shouldn’t worry just yet about printed gun components being cheaper.

Defense Distributed is using a half-million-dollar printer, according to Wilson. It took about six and a half hours to print the lower receiver in the video and cost about $180 of material.

Neither the National Rifle Association nor the Second Amendment Foundation has shown much excitement about

Courtesy Defense Distributed

printing plastic gun parts. Even the old loafers at my local gun shop had misgivings. But the constitutional right to making guns, to printing guns, to the WikiWeapon project is there.

“If you do not exercise your right out of fear of losing it, then I say you never had that right in the first place,” Wilson says. “That’s the stance I’m taking on this whole thing.”

Kerras of Ares Armor likely agrees with him. A statement at the bottom of the Ares Armor website reads: “Remember that the Constitution was meant to control the amount of power the government has. Second Amendment.”

Maybe a headline from Smithsonian Magazine’s blog sums it up best: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone 3D Prints a Gun.

The post The Hype Over 3D Printed Gun Parts appeared first on Dangerous Magazine.

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