When 3D printers were created 30+ years ago, no one even imagined they’d be able to print objects as extensive and intricate as guns, and yet, this is a reality people are living with today. In 2023, 3D-printed guns are a significant source of controversy as 3D printing has never been this accessible to so many people before. While there is a great deal of concern surrounding these machines, there is also a lot of misconceptions about them as well. I personally love the idea of people being able to create tools for self-defense in their own homes. I think this limits the future power of the federal government to regulate firearms successfully. I think it ultimately strengthens our 2nd Amendment right.
3D-printed guns are weapons created with a 3D printer, a filament of choice, FDM techniques, and functions akin to a manufactured gun. It is currently legal for anyone to create a 3D-printed gun as it is protected under the Second Amendment and the file codes under the First Amendment. They are tricky to make and require significant 3D printing knowledge and do not come without risk.
It’s no surprise many people are intrigued by the idea of 3D-printed guns while others are wary of their existence. To help shed some light on this touchy topic, I’m going to discuss everything you need to know about 3D-printed guns in 2023 from my own printing experience. I’ll provide detailed explanations regarding what they are, how they are made, the legality of these weapons, and my experience.
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What are 3D-printed Guns?
In its most basic form, to be considered a 3D-printed gun, a firearm must contain components created by a 3D printer, most notably the receiver. We’ll describe what the receiver is in greater detail when discussing the legality of 3D-printed guns. Still, for now, we’ll note that these are the only components of any gun governmentally regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Contrary to common belief, the entire firearm does not have to be made exclusively from 3D printer filaments, and, in reality, very few ever are. Some 3D-printed guns are 99% printed and only contain a minimal amount of outside materials, such as a metal spring. Still, many are made predominantly from manufactured parts and 3D-printed components combined together.
These components are made from a 3D printing process known as, Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), where a continuous filament of thermoplastic material is fed through a spool in the 3D printer, heated, and then deposited in accordance with a specified pattern as dictated by coded files. The 3D printer will then create the gun components specified in the file, and the user will assemble the pieces to create a complete firearm.
When Did they Begin?
Despite 3D printers being invented nearly forty years ago, the first 3D-printed gun was not created until relatively recently, in 2013. Cody Wilson, an avid gun-rights activist, was 25 years old at the time he successfully created the first functioning 3D-printed gun. Not only did he create the first 3D-printed gun, The Liberator, but he also created Defense Disturbed, an open-source gun design collective that makes the design files for 3D-printed guns accessible to the public. As the first-ever 3D-printed gun, The Liberator is a single-shot pistol named after the famous World War II-era pistol. It was far from a good gun, but it certainly piqued public interest regarding the possibilities of 3D printing, a rising piece of technology that many were starting to explore.
For the first time, a gun could be almost entirely manufactured from a person’s home using a 3D printer, technology that once cost up to six or seven figures just in resources, techniques, and equipment alone. This effectively barred it from commercial use until about 2009, when 3D printers finally entered the public domain, and their prices started dropping to more manageable rates of about $1,000 per machine. This is still a hefty price but much more accessible to the 3D printing enthusiast than the $10,000 sticker price they had two years prior. With the cost barrier becoming smaller and smaller, interest has significantly increased in 3D printing since 2009, mainly for hobbyists, and Wilson’s revolutionary discovery only added to the intrigue.
3D-printed Guns Versus Manufactured Guns
Once properly made, 3D-printed guns can function just like any manufactured firearm, but that does not mean they are on par with purchasable guns. For one, 3D-printed guns tend to be far less durable and accurate. They also have a significantly slower firing rate, and they are notoriously unreliable. Any 3D printer user interested in making a 3D-printed gun usually goes through extensive trial and error before they create a gun that actually works, and even then, it isn’t uncommon for the gun to start to break down after a handful of rounds due to its material makeup.
However, there are some perks to 3D-printed guns that are also significant causes for concern. For one, unlike manufactured guns you purchase in a store, 3D-printed guns do not contain serial numbers and are not legally required to be registered with the government. This is due to the legislation surrounding firearms and freedom of speech in the United States, which we’ll discuss thoroughly momentarily. These rights allow U.S. citizens more freedom for 3D-printed gun creation than in any other nation. The other major difference between 3D-printed guns and manufactured guns is that you don’t have to hop through bureaucratic hoops like background checks, waiting periods, and various regulations to get a 3D-printed gun. You just make it.
Frankly, you could “just make” a normal firearm yourself as well, but this requires much more intensive equipment and knowledge of forging to accomplish. Making a 3D-printed gun can be just as expensive as purchasing one and still requires significant 3D-printing knowledge, but it is far cheaper than making a forged gun yourself.
How Are 3D Guns Printed?
The process of 3D printing guns is quite extensive and involved, so if you’re considering dabbling in the arts of 3D printing just for this purpose, you’re going to have an incredibly rude awakening to start. While it can be complex to an extent, by following this guide it is entirely manageable and even fun.
Most individuals who use 3D printers to create guns will use Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), also known as Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), because it has the lowest price of entry and materials. Therefore, this is the method hobbyists are most familiar with due to its accessibility. Despite stereolithography (SLA) having a much higher accuracy rate and resolution, it is typically used solely by professionals and institutions, largely due to its overall cost, both in equipment and materials per use. Therefore, while SLA would arguably make a much more detailed and accurate gun, FDM is still capable of creating intricate parts with relative accuracy and can create a fully functional 3D-printed gun with the proper instruction and direction from 3D files and its user.
In terms of materials, all 3D printers use something known as a filament, which is a thread-like object you feed through the 3D printer and can actually be made from a wide range of materials, such as:
- Carbon fiber
These are just a few of the materials one could use for 3D printing, and those who are really savvy at this science might use a combination of filaments to create a much more durable and long-lasting 3D-printed gun. For the most part, users will opt for the common “daily driver” thermoplastic filament of Polylactic acid (PLA) plastic or PLA+. PLA is hands-down the most popular and affordable filament used for 3D printing, which is why most will use it to create 3D-printed guns, especially to start. However, PLA+ has a lot of the same perks as PLA, but it is much stronger, making it the more optimal choice of the two as it will reduce the chances of your 3D-printed gun shattering after firing.
Another way users will help ensure their 3D-printed gun is more durable is by using the files to print the gun receiver and then adding components around it that can more easily handle the stress and strain that comes with shooting a bullet out of a firearm. It is highly unlikely that an operational 3D-printed gun is made entirely out of plastic since this material is not strong enough to sustain the firing process repeatedly. As a result, the preferred method is to purchase parts kits comprised of manufactured gun parts that don’t require registration. These parts will surround the printed receiver to create a robust, long-lasting firearm.
We won’t get too into the nitty-gritty of a specific model, but will explain the process for most 3D-printed guns, as each is made a little differently, but we’ll give a palpable overview of the process. To start, you’ll need a 3D file that functions as a sort of electronically coded blueprint of your gun. Each gun has its own file that will need to be tweaked to match the printer you have, so no 3D-printable gun file is truly universal.
These premade files can be found all over the web in both paid and free versions. Defense Distrubted is one resource, and there are many other 3D printed source file websites out there that can be found with a simple search. Many of these sites frequently change, which is why no specific site is linked here.
Once you have the file, it is fed to a program known as a slicer, computer software that converts 3D object models into specific instructions that your 3D printer can follow to create the specified object. The process sounds easy, but guns are extremely complex and intricate objects that are far from simple to manufacture, let alone print digitally with a 3D printer.
A lot of new 3D printer hobbyists and those uninformed about 3D printing, in general, have the misconception that anyone could feed a simple file into their 3D printer, leave the printer to do its business, and then return two hours later to find a fully functional gun sitting waiting for them. This is far from reality. It is possible to 3D print a gun, as demonstrated by numerous individuals over the past few years. However, this is an intensive process that requires the maker to have extensive knowledge of printing materials, gun makeup, some coding capabilities, and the ability to follow directions to a “T.”
We’d also like to note that not everyone with a 3D printer can whip up some code for their own gun and print themselves an arsenal. Designing files for firearms from scratch is hard, and only a select few individuals or groups make these files and release them to the wild, meaning they’re accessible to the public. The files are certainly accessible by anyone, but you’ll need to alter them to fit your printer, filament, and other specifications.
What Kind of Printers Make Them?
The exciting but also concerning truth about 3D printing a gun is that you can use any 3D printer to do so. If the user has enough knowledge about the process and knows how exactly to tweak files and use their 3D printer properly, they could create a fully functional 3D-printed gun from a $200 3D printer. Some will certainly function better and yield a higher-quality result, mainly if you are using more costly and durable filaments. Still, the reality of 3D printing is that any printer can be used for these products.
Who is Allowed to Make Them?
The short answer to this question is anyone. Under federal law, any U.S. citizen is permitted to manufacture a firearm for personal use, with some exceptions withstanding. Those strictly prohibited from owning a firearm cannot make or own a 3D-printed gun. Some of these exceptions include non-citizens and those banned due to criminal acts, such as felonies and misdemeanor domestic violence offenses. The fact that any citizen is allowed to make their own 3D-printed gun shocks many, but this is not new. People are perfectly within their Constitutional rights to create any firearm, even those you would see in most gun stores. Still, the fact of the matter is that these guns require extensive training, equipment, and resources, which all come at a hefty price most Americans can’t afford.
It’s not every day you walk into someone’s home and find a fully functional forge capable of creating firearms, which is why most people were unaware of this right because gun-making has never been so accessible before. Now, with the proper knowledge, a 3D printer, and some filament, you can create your own gun at the same or reduced cost as those in stores.
Who Should Make them?
Just because virtually any U.S. citizen can 3D print a gun does not any of them should or would even be successful. Due to the extensive and involved process of 3D-printed guns, this isn’t a task anyone should take lightly or believe they can accomplish on the first try. Before you even attempt the 3D print a gun, you should understand how to properly conduct risk assessments to ensure no mechanical hazards, emissions, and other risks are probable or present that could cause your product to function improperly or potentially harm you or your equipment.
You’ll also need some of the skills we mentioned previously, such as coding knowledge, familiarity with 3D printing in general, and the ability to follow 3D files and “Read Me” materials exactly. Users also need to effectively alter 3D files to suit their printer before attempting to build a 3D printed gun. As we mentioned previously, every program and printer is different, so there aren’t any 3D-printed gun files that a novice printer could obtain and toss into their 3D printer. Your 3D printer will require a meticulous setup and several upgrades; the component that releases your filament must be calibrated, and the finished parts will need to be precisely constructed before use.
So, while anyone can legally 3D print a gun, not everyone can do it. Successfully that is. If you hope to stand a chance at completing this process and firing a fully functional 3D-printed firearm, you’re going to need to be at least at the intermediate level with your printing knowledge and skills. If your dream is to create your own unique code for a 3D-printed firearm, your knowledge needs to exceed the average 3D printing hobbyists’ by far.
Are They Legal?
Absolutely. This is a vital point of contention and debate, but at the end of the day, 3D-printed guns are perfectly legal in the United States. There are two predominant reasons why 3D-printed guns are legal, and they are found right at the tippy top of the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution.
Legality Under the Second Amendment
We’re going to go slightly out of order and start with the Second Amendment detailed in the Bill of Rights, which explicitly states that,
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The fact that the U.S. doesn’t really need a citizen-based militia and that there is a vast amount of an interpretive gray area here is beside the point. The Second Amendment permits all U.S. citizens to own firearms, excluding those mentioned previously (i.e., felons and non-citizens). For all intents and purposes, a 3D-printed gun is still considered a firearm under the eyes of the Constitution and therefore protected by the Second Amendment.
Legality Under the First Amendment
Things get trickier when you discuss why 3D-printed guns are protected under the First Amendment. This amendment explicitly states that:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The “freedom of speech” part is what really applies here. Many people opposed to the accessibility of 3D-printed guns don’t understand why it is so difficult to regulate them by making their files illegal and, therefore inaccessible to the public. The issue is that doing this would directly infringe on the First Amendment right of freedom of speech, as writing is considered a form of speech. In the case of 3D-printed gun files, code is the form of writing that is protected and anything else written within the file. Freedom of speech implicitly allows U.S. citizens to express and share their ideas. The coding on a 3D printing file is the digital expression of the form of a firearm; it is not a physical gun. It, therefore, constitutes as an “idea,” and so, this, combined with the fact that the language used in its files is considered speech, means any restriction on 3D-printing files is unconstitutional as it violates the First Amendment.
Is There Any Legislation Around 3D-Printed Guns?
3D-printed guns might be protected under the U.S. Constitution, but that does not mean they are without regulations. There are several legal barriers that 3D printer users have to keep in mind when creating a 3D-printed gun. Here, we’ll discuss the regulations currently in place that pertain to 3D-printed guns. However, several bills aim to regulate further 3D-printed guns, particularly regarding the public accessibility of their code/files.
Regulations on Certain Guns and All Gun Receivers
To start, users have to comply with any restrictions and regulations for their firearms, as detailed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). The most important being the receiver. When you purchase or create a firearm, it is not the entire gun that is regulated and tracked by the ATF but rather a specific component(s) known as the receiver. Oddly enough, the receiver is not universal within guns and sometimes appears to be chosen by the ATF at random. For instance, the receiver on an AK-47 is the piece of steel within the gun where the barrel and other components are connected. The FN-FAL’s receiver is where the barrel screws in and are devoid of any trigger components versus the AR-15’s receiver, which is actually the box that holds the trigger unit.
As it is the sole piece regulated and tracked by the ATF, the receiver is the one piece that 3D printer users will almost always print in order to avoid the process of obtaining them legally from a shop. Due to the legality surrounding receivers, even if you were to purchase this sole piece, you are still subject the background checks and other regulations before acquiring it. They can’t simply be mailed to your front door, so 3D printer users will print them to skip this time-consuming hoop. There are also regulations on certain types of guns, regardless of their material makeup. For instance, short barrel guns require a tax payment and approval from the ATF, and some guns, like machine guns, must be registered with the ATF as well.
Regulations on Intent to Sell
Another important regulation regarding the manufacturing of any gun is that you cannot create them yourself with the intent to sell unless you are a licensed source. Gun stores go through extensive processes before they are legally permitted to sell firearms to the public, and the same goes for any U.S. citizen with this intent. While it is perfectly legal for you to 3D-print a gun for personal use, once you create components, particularly receivers, with intent to sell, you must become legally licensed by the ATF as dictated by the federal Gun Control Act (GCA). So those of you concerned that any random citizen can just sit at home pumping out mass numbers of 3D-printed guns and sell them out of their garage can rest moderately at ease knowing this can’t occur legally.
Regulations on 100% Printed Guns
Those interested in testing your 3D printing skills by making a gun should know that it is illegal for you to make a 100% 3D-printed gun. Not only do you want to avoid this because no filament is strong enough to sustain the firing process, but the Undetectable Firearms Act strictly prohibits it. This act makes it illegal for any citizen to manufacture, own, and transfer guns undetectable by metal detectors. This is why, at the very least, creators will make 3D-printed guns that are 99% filament with a small metal component that renders them detectable, and, therefore legal.
Have Any Crimes Been Committed With a 3D-Printed Gun?
You would think the answer to this question would be a cut-and-dry yes or no, but it’s actually a bit more inconclusive due to the frequent use of the term “ghost gun.” A ghost gun refers to any unregulated, untraceable firearm, lacks a serial number, and can be built by anyone using parts kits and other materials. Contrary to manufactured guns, you do not need to subject yourself to a background check in order to build and own a ghost gun. You can see why this would appeal to those with sinister intent.
The answer to this question is difficult because “ghost guns” are kind of a blanket term that just means the gun doesn’t fall under ATF regulations and can’t be tracked through conventional means, like a serial number. While 3D-printed guns certainly fall under this category, so do several other homemade guns that were built using other materials and means. Someone could create the most magnificent gun in their backyard forge, and it would still be considered a “ghost gun” despite having nothing to do with a 3D printer. It is commonly known that most crimes committed with “ghost guns” are actually regular manufactured guns with the serial number filed off.
Unfortunately, when a crime is committed with a ghost gun, the source rarely reveals what the gun was made of, and if 3D printers are suspected, the claim is inconclusive. For example, in 2020, “a Pawtucket woman was fatally shot by a gun that police say appears to have been made with a 3D printer.” An article by Boston Globe describing this event discusses the dangers of 3D-printed guns, yet police never confirmed that a 3D printer actually made this ghost gun. And this is the only instance on record where a 3D-printed gun was connected to a crime.
There are cases where there is a significant cause for suspicion, but just because a gun is labeled as a “ghost gun” and was created by someone in their home using various parts does not mean it is a 3D-printed gun. To this day, there are no crimes where the weapon used has been explicitly identified and confirmed as a 3D-printed gun. The closest example would be cases like that of Eric McGinnis, who was charged for possession of a 3D-printed gun when he was legally prohibited from owning firearms.
While the concern surrounding 3D-printed guns is certainly warranted to some degree, these machines are a long way from being as proficient as manufactured weapons. Most 3D-printed guns shatter due to their weak materials and builder error. They are also highly inaccurate and unreliable, making them poor choices for anyone planning to perform well at a firing range or use for more sinister intentions.
While 3D-printed guns can’t hold a candle to manufactured guns, they are still a firearm that requires respect and understanding of its capabilities. But guns are ultimately machines that shoot bullets, and the extent of their use is up to the discretion of the user. 3D-printed or not, there will always be examples of proper use and abuse of these objects, but whether this technological advancement will remain in the realm of public freedom is uncertain.
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