3D printing has been heralded as one of the most important new technologies of our generation, capable of revolutionizing manufacturing, and someday, applications like healthcare or even food production. However, every new technology opens the door to nefarious uses, and for the past several years, people have been concerned that anyone with access to a 3D printer could now print their own weapons.
Back in 2013, millions of internet users were in an uproar after finding out that the world’s first 3D printed handgun had been created and fired successfully. Moreover, the plans for creating this weapon were made publicly available. The threat is very obvious; anyone with 3D printing capabilities could now, for the inexpensive cost of plastic, build their own firearm to use as they see fit.
These plans still exist, and in fact, have evolved over the past several years. Users have now been able to make semi-automatic weaponry using only a handful of parts beyond what 3D printers can provide. So why aren’t more people talking about the potential for danger here? Why haven’t we heard more about 3D printed weapons? Are they still a potential threat?
Most people who want to obtain a weapon want that weapon to be reliable, whether it’s for hunting, personal protection, or just to put on display. Professional firearm salespeople have high standards for the quality of their weaponry, ensuring that they meet rigorous safety standards, and that collectible pieces are “correct,” or close to the original condition when manufactured. The blueprints for 3D printed weapons may be functional, but they aren’t pretty, and even small imperfections in the 3D printing process could result in unreliable firing.
All pieces of a 3D firearm can be printed except for the firing pin. If assembled incorrectly, the piece could misfire, resulting in significant injury to the firer. For this reason, 3D printed weapons are more dangerous to the amateur printer than they are to anyone else, and most people interested in obtaining a firearm would pass up the opportunity to print one.
Are 3D printed guns even legal? The short answer is maybe. Untraceable firearms are illegal to own in the United States, meaning if you’re caught with a weapon that can’t be detected by a conventional metal detector and can’t be traced back to you as the owner, you’ll be found in violation of the law. Obviously, people are still able to obtain firearms illegally—especially when it is perfectly legal to create and distribute blueprints for how to create your own firearm online—but it’s another factor limiting the number of people who would voluntarily print a firearm for themselves.
Currently, most 3D printing technology relies on plastics like PLA and ABS to create their intended materials. Neither of these plastics is ideal for creating a reliable, safe firearm. PLA plastic is weaker than ABS and is liable to break when bent too far. It also has a lower melting temperature; when firing multiple rounds at once, the plastic can melt around the barrel, rendering the gun completely unusable. In fact, the semi-automatic weapon mentioned in the introduction of this article is only able to fire three rounds at a time. ABS plastic is more durable, but it’s also harder to print—and it’s liable to shrink and warp after it’s created, making it hard to achieve a reliable desired final shape.
Note that there has never been a single incident of a person being killed or injured by a 3D printed weapon in the United States, despite nearly four years of public availability for the blueprints. It’s true that some people have been caught owning or carrying a 3D printed firearm—such as one person who was found by TSA at an airport—but because of the factors above, even criminals are uninterested in pursuing 3D printed weaponry.
Present and Future
For now, it seems that 3D printed weapons aren’t a significant threat. They’re far less practical than they seem, with low quality and unreliable materials, they’re illegal, and the statistics show that people just aren’t interested in using them. However, the future could hold significant changes that make 3D printed firearms more practical. For example, improvements in 3D printing materials, wider accessibility for 3D printing technology, and more advanced blueprints could escalate this threat level considerably.
Only time will tell how 3D printing advances from here, and how the threat of printed firearms advances with it.