In the 1993 action thriller In the Line of Fire, a crazed former CIA agent decides to kill the president. The would-be assassin (played by John Malkovich) builds a gun out of plastic, which allows him to sneak by metal detectors undetected and get within spitting distance of the president, setting the stage for a harrowing climax.
These days, some people aiming to make a DIY gun have found resources on the Internet, stirring up a hornet’s nest of legal and ethical challenges.
In May 2013, the company Defense Distributed thumbed its nose at gun-control advocates when it released open-source files for “the Liberator,” a functioning single-shot pistol. Overnight, online users could suddenly download and three-dimensionally “print” a single-shot pistol with the click of a few buttons.
Federal government agencies moved swiftly to quash the technological development. The U.S. State Department demanded the company remove the plans from their website two days after the release, citing a potential violation of arms-exportation laws. The company complied, but not before more than 100,000 people around the globe had downloaded the files.
Weeks later, the Department of Homeland Security sent a memo to state and federal law-enforcement agencies, warning that “difficulty regulating file-sharing may present public-safety risks from unqualified gun seekers who obtain or manufacture 3-D printed guns.” In addition to DHS’s concerns about the Liberator’s unique ability to evade metal detectors, the memo concluded by stating that “limiting access may be impossible.”
But Cody Wilson, the director of Defense Distributed, says that, more than anything else, it’s hysteria around his weapon that is being manufactured.
“It’s convenient for the forces that oppose us: [They decry that] this thing could be snuck on a plane, [and] no one [would] know,” says Wilson, 29, a self-described crypto-anarchist who has gained media attention with his deliberately provocative statements about gun rights and violence. (WIRED magazine has named him one of the 15 Most Dangerous People in the World.) But he adds that the undetectable nature of the weapon is “a historical accident.”
“It wasn’t my hope that guns would become completely plastic. We were just demonstrating that a new technology could make a gun,” says Wilson, who has also dabbled in BitCoin startups.
3-D printers work through a process known as additive manufacturing—with the aid of a computer, objects are made in layers. Wilson’s gun was made using a Stratasys Dimension SST 3-D printer, which Wilson purchased secondhand for “around $10,000″—a cost many might find prohibitive.
But—as is often the case with new technology—time has rapidly driven prices down. In 2015, engineer James Patrick developed the Washbear revolver: That weapon prints on the XYZprinting da Vinci, a machine that currently retails for $347 on Amazon.
In a written statement, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) told A&E Real Crime that individuals are allowed to make firearms for private use, although they must obtain a license in order to sell them. In addition, just because “a firearm is created through 3-D printing does not change anything in regards to the fact that it must still comply with all federal regulations. For 3-D printed firearms, this includes the requirement to have material within the firearm to make it detectable by metal detectors in order to comply with the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988.”
Wilson says his Liberator includes a compartment in the front where users can insert a metal block so as to be federally compliant, but he freely acknowledges that the weapon would operate even if a user didn’t insert the metal.
“The metal block is completely vestigial,” he says. “That’s by design.”
It’s unclear how much trouble 3-D guns could pose to security efforts moving forward. While it is impossible to accurately track their proliferation given that few, if any, are licensed, it also isn’t clear whether they have grown as a threat on the streets. The New York Police Department, for one, says the “vast amount” of firearms they recover do not fall into the DIY/3-D printed category.
Last August, a passenger was caught by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at Reno-Tahoe International with a 3-D printed gun replica in his carry-on. But when asked about how the existence of these guns might affect their work moving forward, a spokesman for the TSA noted that they already screen for illegal items—”metallic and non-metallic” alike—using “imaging technology” to detect objects concealed beneath clothing.
And while other security teams (e.g. those at large sporting events or concerts) don’t have that same technology, so far no one has been killed or injured by a 3-D printed gun.
Not that that’s quelled the debate. Defense Distributed has sued the U.S. Department of State over the executive ban on their 3-D files, arguing that the order to pull the files was a violation of their first-amendment rights.
In February of last year, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control, filed an amicus brief supporting the State Department’s efforts. Jonathan Lowry, the director of that campaign’s legal-action project, said at the time that, “This case shows just how far the corporate gun lobby will go—fighting for a supposed right to export blueprints for anyone in the world to print, sell or use an assault weapon or an undetectable plastic gun.”
But Wilson says he hasn’t received support from the corporate gun lobby.
“The NRA (National Rifle Association of America), for all their messaging, have to work very closely with executive agencies,” he says. “We cause more trouble than we need to… They won’t support any of our efforts.”
A spokesman at the NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the organization’s position regarding Defense Distributed and 3-D printed guns.
Meanwhile, Wilson says his organization has shifted in recent years from software to hardware. Today, he’s centered his efforts on distributing the Ghost Gunner 2—a desktop-milling machine that he says is “based on 3-D printing logic.” The Ghost Gunner 2 works with metal, meaning those who buy the hardware will be able to put together untraceable weaponry that’s military grade.
“I don’t believe in the registration of firearms just like I don’t believe in the registration of computers,” Wilson says. “I don’t believe in background checks. I believe in universal access.”
According to Brendan Kelly, spokesman for the Brady Campaign, 93 percent of Americans—including gun owners—support background checks. “It doesn’t matter if the gun comes from a dealer, online, a gun show or a 3-D printer,” Mr. Kelly says. “Domestic abusers, felons, and other dangerous people shouldn’t be able to get their hands on a gun. And Brady background checks remain one of the best ways to do that.”
When Wilson is asked what he’d say to those who have been directly touched by gun violence, he is unflinching.
“I embrace violence as a political technique,” Wilson says, ever the provocateur.