3-D printed weapons changing gun control conversation

Jacob Knutson


Steven Sicen Sun enjoyed sitting in his apartment watching cop shows, playing video games and printing imitations of real firearms using his 3-D printer until Feb. 27, when Australian police officers raided his apartment, confiscating various weapons, including multiple re-creations of the popular Glock pistol.

Sun was arrested and charged with, among other offenses, manufacturing and selling firearms without a license, which attracts a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

While Australian officials say the weapons were only designed to shoot plastic pellets, they did argue the weapons set a threatening precedent.

By letting Sun sell his weapons, officials said it would have allowed future 3-D engineers, who will have sturdier materials at their disposal, to produce and sell deadlier weapons that make Sun’s imitations seem like squirt guns.

And Sun’s account isn’t special. Nations worldwide are realizing and reacting to the dangers of 3-D printed weapons, but they’re fighting an uphill battle.

In just the last five years, 3-D printing technology has advanced in lengthy strides. Engineers can now print in a whole range of materials, including steel, aluminum, gold, brass, high-grade plastics and even organic matter.

Last month, the company Apis Cor printed a 400-square-foot concrete home in under 24 hours for just over $10,000.

Even in its infancy, 3-D printing technology, or a divergence from it, is predicted to drastically shape global economies. Already the manufacturing industry, the fields of healthcare and medicine, education institutions and the culinary arts are implementing printing technology in operations.

While developers can’t predict how far and how fast 3-D printing will expand, many predict that printers will follow the same trajectory as desktop computers, becoming a staple in all facets of society, from home to office.

But advances in technologies are always two-fold—they come with risks and rewards. As 3-D printers can impact society in numerous beneficial ways, they still provide a loophole for weapons. And while weapons aren’t inherently immoral, those creating them may have immoral intents.

But individuals creating weapons are not the threat. For years numerous responsible gun owners have been legally fabricating their own weapons, but doing this requires craftsmanship, intelligence, a fair amount of time and access to many machines and raw materials.

The threat is the ease at which people can craft a 3-D weapon. All one has to do is download an open-sourced file, upload it to a printing program and the machine does the rest. Developing the design for the weapon takes skill, but printing is effortless.

Right now, there are two different methods to print a weapon. People can either print a weapon completely comprised of plastic or print individual parts and combine them with traditionally created firearm pieces.

The weapons made completely from plastic are pretty low-tech and aren’t necessarily reliable. Many of the trigger mechanisms require rubber bands or springs to function. But no matter how crude, they can still fire live ammunition.

People usually print parts based off of the AR-15 assault rifle. Specifically, they print out the lower receiver, the part of the rifle that harbors the trigger and feeding mechanisms. It is the crucial piece of a firearm and is also the sole piece of an assault rifle that’s regulated by the United States government. It is legal to buy any other piece of a weapon without a license.

But some developers have not stopped at lower receivers. Some are trying to design reliable magazines, barrels, stocks and even ammunition. In the near future people will likely be able to print both a complete weapons and ammunition.

But because these printed lower receivers and fully plastic weapons are technically “created” by the owner of the 3-D printer, traditional measures to regulate guns are useless. While it is illegal build undetectable weapons, there are already thousands of files available online, and, like weeds, nothing stops the files from being uploaded again.

Again, the worry is not the creation of a weapon but the ease at making it. If this technology is going to advance as projected, everyone will have access to printing a weapon, including children.

While it is currently much easier and far cheaper to simply buy a registered firearm, 3-D printing technology will likely change this in the near future. As the technology advances, becomes cheaper and more people have access to it, manufacturing cost for everything is likely going to decrease, creating a marketplace for printed weapons.

With this is mind, governments must respond to these threats without impeding on rights, which is far easier said than done.

Whatever actions governments take to close such loopholes are bound to receive backlash from gun rights activists, and, while this argument is not new, 3-D printed weapons are going to perplex an already difficult debate.

Jacob Knutson is a sophomore journalism and political science major from Rapid City, S.D.

Blog at WordPress.com.

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