There’s been a great deal of social media outrage and political bluster about a recent legal agreement between the U.S. government and guns rights group Defense Distributed that allowed the group to host files on their website that could make it possible for people to print most of the components of a firearm in the comfort of their own homes. Many gun control activists see this decision as a direct affront to recent efforts to curb gun violence within the United States, and as such, state governments across the land are hurriedly working to counter the federal decision and ban these digital files from being downloaded within their purview.
The problem with this latest outrage, like so many in today’s politically tumultuous atmosphere, is that everyone, including outspoken politicians, seems to be operating with nothing more than a headline-born understanding of the subject. No one seems to be discussing the practical application of these files, the logistics of trying to ban them, or their likelihood to be used in “movie theaters and schools” as one prominent politician recently claimed.
“As of tomorrow, anyone, including criminals and terrorists can have access to blueprints for making deadly weapons with a click of a mouse,” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. said earlier this week. “Anyone will be able to download a computer file and use a very simple process to make it possible for them to be able to make a gun.” He went on to say, “These firearms are also untraceable. They will not have a serial number for law enforcement to reference and in the case of purely plastic firearms, these firearms will be undetectable. They will pass through metal detectors without a blip, a buzz or a bell that is going off.”
The truth is, Americans have long built and modified firearms in their homes. My personal approach to firearms, like cars, has always been that they aren’t truly yours until you do something to them. It might be a new air freshener or some better optics, but often, it involves tearing the platform down into a series of parts and swapping new ones in where I see fit. Lots of other folks choose to build their own firearms from the ground up — purchasing the individual components legally and building their platforms to their own exact specifications. Only the receiver, or frame, of the weapon, is a controlled item under U.S. law, and when it comes to the controversy regarding printed firearms, it’s truly only the receiver people ought to be worried about but here’s the thing: printing a gun remains the least practical, least reliable, and least available way to arm yourself — especially if you’re a criminal. The barrier for entry into the 3D gun world is thousands of dollars, time, and technical skills — all things you don’t need if you’re looking to just buy or steal a gun.
The files in question aren’t something you just plug into a 3D printer you scooped up off of eBay for a few hundred bucks. Instead, they’ll give you the data you need to print a blank receiver and, in some case, a few other specific components of a firearm. Once they’re printed, you’ll still need some fairly expensive tools, some externally sourced parts, and a fair amount of know-how to make your way to a functioning gun. The barrel and firing pin, for instance, can’t be printed out of plastic, and as such, will need to be purchased and installed along with your printed components (which also means these guns will be detectable by metal detectors — think Glock). To be fair, there are some models of these guns that use plastic barrels — and they are incredibly unsafe and often fail in spectacular fashion after one or two shots. A drill press, grinder (or a great deal of sandpaper and patience), and some serious attention to detail are just some of the things you’ll need to have at your disposal aside from a 3D printer that’s capable of printing the materials you need in the ways you’d need to print them. A cheap one of those might run you a thousand dollars — and a good one will cost about the same as a new car (you can even get printers that work with metal). The truth is, however, if it were feasible to reliably print whole guns that performed just as well as the traditional method of production, gun manufacturers would be doing it to reduce costs.
So, while lawmakers and social media warriors assume school shooters and the like will have access to this sort of workshop and resources and have the time to and skills required to be build these weapons, the easiest ways to get your hands on some high-velocity hardware remain legal purchases and theft — just like they always have been. Again, it isn’t impossible for an aspiring active shooter to get their hands on a 3D printed gun, it’s just a lot less likely that they would when there remains so many other more feasible avenues to pursue. Issues with the federal background check database have permitted felons to purchase firearms in stores without any trouble (as was the case in Sutherland Springs last year) and shooters without an existing criminal record could purchase a firearm in stores or second hand for far less than it might cost to print one. Of course, stealing the gun from someone the shooter knows will always remain a more enticing option than purchasing all of the equipment necessary to “print” a gun as well.
All of this isn’t to say that there’s no worthy legal discussion to be had about printable firearm receivers and frames — it is true that these weapons don’t have serial numbers (though police don’t often use the serial number to match a weapon to a crime anyway). Honestly, if you already have all the necessary equipment, it’s not all that hard to make your own gun — but the truth is, it never has been all that hard.
The problem is, once again, America is so eager to jump into heated arguments about guns that most fail to consider the reality of the situation. Instead, legislation will hastily make its way into law based on popular outrage and political grandstanding, but little will actually be done to curb gun violence (especially because all of this hubbub is based on the idea that 3D printed guns will lead to more gun violence, which at this point, is nothing more than an assertion).
As is so often the case, the truth is more complicated than the hashtags being hurled around the digital ether — and because complicated truths are hard to condense into a Tweet, they rarely make their way into the public consciousness.
Featured image courtesy of Justin Pickard, via Flickr.