Earlier this year, controversy arose over whether Defense Distributed could publish blueprints for 3D-printed guns online. While the company was ultimately blocked from doing so, the controversy brought to light the difficult questions surrounding the safety of 3D printing.
But are 3D-printed guns as dangerous as they sound? The answer is more complicated than it seems on its face.
A 3D-printed gun ultimately functions just like any other gun. The key difference is that whereas manufactured firearms are mass-produced in traditional factories, a 3D-printed gun is created at home (or at the office, or possibly even at the public library).
These guns start with a digital file, which can be created with CAD (computer-aided design) software or downloaded from the Internet. Using this file, a 3D printer can create all gun components, one layer at a time. 3D-printed guns can be created from metal, and when assembled, can look and feel exactly like a factory-manufactured gun. More often, however, they are printed from plastic materials. This generally renders them shorter-lived weapons, but also makes them undetectable by metal detectors—which is worrisome for obvious reasons.
But 3D-printed guns are nothing new. Five years ago, you could find a design for a plastic gun online, print it, and fire it. And you could print metal guns too with Direct Metal Laser Sintering systems. You did need a reliable and accurate printer, since a gun has quite a few moving parts that need to be assembled. Then, the printers and materials were far more expensive than they are today—especially the metal printers. Moreover, you did (and still do) need some level of craftsmanship to accomplish the complex assembly. It was difficult to do, but it could be done.
Yet today, 3D printers are far more advanced and more accessible on a mass scale. Now, the scenario of low-budget 3D-printed guns produced by anyone with a printer is not unrealistic. Similarly realistic is the modification of traditionally manufactured weapons using 3D-printed components.
What’s more, today there are better materials that are more widely available, such as nylon filled with carbon fiber or graphene-filled materials. These materials can take the mechanical performance of plastic-printed guns to new heights, extending durability and life.
So, are 3D-printed guns dangerous? Of course they are. All guns are dangerous. That’s their whole point.
Do 3D-printed guns represent an existential threat to our society? No way.
First off, although the availability issue is highly relevant, the technology itself does not yet scale. There is no economically or technically viable way to equip an army with 3D-printed guns now, nor in the foreseeable future. Moreover, there is still a significant knowledge and craftsmanship barrier to creating your own guns. Despite online forums and DIY instructions, making a gun that doesn’t blow your own hand off is still challenging enough that not everyone will try it.
Market economics still rule our actions. And the fact is that if you really want a gun, there’s one significantly easier, cheaper, and completely legal way to obtain one without 3D printing: Buy it. And if you’re looking for an untraceable gun, look no further than Defense Distributed’s open-source CNC milling machines, which can make machine-grade, unmarked metal assault rifles and handguns.
And what about the government’s attempts to regulate 3D-printed guns more strictly? Let’s be real: There are countless ways to disseminate information in our always-connected cloud computing universe, including through the dark web and distributed or decentralized file sharing. With all due respect to the judicial system, a judge’s order is not going to shut down these kinds of activities. Applying linear law enforcement thinking to govern exponential tech-enabled behaviors like 3D gun printing is like applying a Band-Aid to a gushing wound.
The dangers of 3D-printed guns make for good headlines, and regulators and politicians like headlines. But let’s face it: 3D-printed guns are only as dangerous as the individuals—currently not many in number—who make them with ill intent.
Avi Reichental is the founder, CEO, and chairman of XponentialWorks, a venture, advisory, and product development firm based in southern California.