3D printed ‘ghost’ guns: Manufactured risk or real security threat?

3D guns are still a novelty. But improved technology will soon make them cheaper and easier to make.

By Jared Shelly

Last week, a U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant arrested for planning a terrorist attack was found with an arsenal of dozens of guns, including components used to build an untraceable AR-15 and other so-called “ghost guns.” That a would-be terrorist had access to these materials is alarming and again brings to the fore the issue of 3-D gun printing, as that technology can be used to turn gun components into fully functioning guns.

Detailed blueprints for 3D-printed guns were released online this summer by Defense Distributed, prompting 19 state attorneys general to sue the company and win a federal injunction to prevent the further distribution of the blueprints. Regardless of the ruling, the DIY plans were already out there: 4,500 plans were downloaded in just a few days. And, of course, similar plans have been lurking online for years.

Just how much of a threat 3D printed ghost guns actually pose is up for debate. Some are horrified by the idea of firearms being manufactured at home — without tracking numbers, licenses or registrations. They argue that so-called “ghost guns” could get in the hands of people who aren’t allowed to legally buy firearms — like felons, people with certain mental illnesses, domestic abusers, and even terrorists.

Others found the threat marginal at best, noting that 3D printing a working firearm is far from easy. To start, it’s illegal to manufacture guns without some metal in them for detection purposes, and skilled gun enthusiasts who build their own guns often buy 80 percent lowers made from metal.  Additionally, it takes sophisticated knowledge of technology and a very expensive 3D printer. Plus 3D-printed guns don’t seem to be durable and break or deteriorate after just a few shots.  

To learn more about 3D-printed firearms, we sat down with Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland and the author of five books on guns. He explained the threat 3D-printed guns pose now and hypothesized about how that might change as 3D printers become faster, cheaper and more mainstream.

What are the main security concerns with 3D guns in their current form?

The concern is that the weapons are unmarked, unregistered and nobody knows they exist until one is manufactured. The fountainhead of gun regulation and keeping guns out of the wrong hands is the ability to trace firearms from the factory to the point when they’re used by a criminal or captured by police. You can’t do that with 3D-printed weapons.

Is detection also a major concern, considering that metal detectors and thermal scanners aren’t designed to discover plastic?

A law passed by Congress in the late 1980s [the United States Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988] makes it illegal to manufacture a gun that can’t be detected by a metal detector — so any plastic guns have to have metal in it for detection purposes.

The plans that were circulated are compliant but it seems equally clear you can produce them without a piece of metal because it’s not necessary for the firing of the weapon or shaping of the weapon. You just don’t want to open the door to making it easier for people to bring anything like a firearm on an airplane.

What are the firing capabilities of 3D-printed guns?

Under current technology, the firing capabilities of these weapons are pretty limited. The units themselves, as I understand it, are not able to fire more than a few shots — or even one shot — before they become unusable. So there’s a limited utility to these things. I think most people are interested out of curiosity and nothing more.

How can someone 3D print a gun?

To manufacture this item you need an appropriate 3D printer, the raw materials — and you have to have the skill. It’s simpler and cheaper to buy a conventional firearm unless the law won’t let you have a firearm — in which case this would be an appealing option.

How does the threat level change if 3D printers become cheaper, more effective, and more mainstream in the future?

When you think about the evolution of technology and electronics, they tend to become better quality and less expensive as time goes by. Compare a modern cell phone with a cell phone from 15 years ago. There’s been a gigantic leap over that period of time. It’s reasonable to assume that the technology will get better. It will become cheaper over time because that’s just the arc of these things.

If you’re going to regulate 3D-printed guns, the time to do it is before they become prolific, before the plans become prolific and before they start to be in wider circulation. If nobody’s interested then putting the clamps on these things now isn’t an issue.

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