Have Powdered Plastic and a Nail? You're a Download Away from a Gun

Philip Bump
Have Powdered Plastic and a Nail? You're a Download Away from a Gun

If you would like to be a gun owner, you will need the following things as of next week: a 3D-printer, Internet access, and a nail. Defense Distributed, the libertarian non-profit focused on creating a shareable 3D model of a firearm, has a working prototype.

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Defense Distributed's design, which it calls the "Liberator," results in the small, unusual-looking weapon pictured below. If it holds up under testing, it's a milestone in firearms production and the debate over gun control. It's been possible for years to create ad hoc guns — generally called "zip" guns — just as it was possible for years to pirate music. The Internet, as it does, is about to make things much easier. For the first time, someone will be able to easily fabricate a reliably working weapon using a simple set of instructions. Forbes got the scoop:

All sixteen pieces of the Liberator prototype were printed in ABS plastic with a Dimension SST printer from 3D printing company Stratasys, with the exception of a single nail that’s used as a firing pin. The gun is designed to fire standard handgun rounds, using interchangeable barrels for different calibers of ammunition.

Technically, Defense Distributed’s gun has one other non-printed component: the group added a six ounce chunk of steel into the body to make it detectable by metal detectors in order to comply with the Undetectable Firearms Act.

Image by Michael Thad Carter for Forbes

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We'll note that the "technically" in that quote above does a lot of work. It's not clear whether or not the chunk of steel is a functional requirement or merely a legal one. If it's the latter, it's likely that the weapon would be undetectable (see: In the Line of Fire) — though any bullets probably would not.

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The questions raised by Defense Distributed's efforts have grown only more urgent. Over the course of the recent gun debate, it became clear that the group's designs were already upending policy proposals. How can you ban high-capacity magazines, for example, when Defense Distributed's "Feinstein" design (seen at top) can go from digital file to something you can hold in your hand as soon as you can get to your nearest Staples?

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Rep. Steve Israel of New York proposed limits on the ability to 3D-print weapons last December, when the concept was still mostly speculative. After Forbes's report today, he updated that call.

The revamped Undetectable Firearms Act that Rep. Israel wrote makes it illegal to manufacture, own, transport, buy, or sell any firearm, receiver, or magazine that is homemade and not detectable by metal detector and/or does not present an accurate image when put through an x-ray machine.

Israel's proposal got no traction last year. It's not clear how much it will receive at this point. In an updated version of the old argument against new gun laws, anyone determined to slip an undetectable firearm through a metal detector is unlikely to be deterred by that being an illegal act.

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Once the plan for the Liberator is released (sometime next week, after it has been fully tested), Defense Distributed will have essentially completed the first step of its plan, "Develop a Fully Printable Firearm." Next on the list, "Adapt the Design Down to Cheaper 3D Printers," and then, "Become the World's Printable Gun Wiki Redoubt." That first step was probably the hardest.

Photo: Still from a Defense Distributed YouTube video.