Don’t panic (yet) about 3D-printed guns

“Ready or not: U.S. unleashing 3D-printed ‘ghost guns’ for the entire internet,” bellows a typical headline on the Global News website, in response to the U.S. Department of Justice settling a case against anarcho-libertarian firearms activist Cody Wilson:

The era of the untraceable, undetectable, 3D-printed gun is almost upon us, and it’s not going to respect international borders.

That’s the concern critics are raising ahead of Aug. 1, when the U.S. will allow plans for the “Liberator” plastic pistol to be posted online for anyone to download. The previously banned weapon can be made using a nail, a bullet, and a 3D printer, and is said to be untraceable and invisible to metal detectors.

These so-called “ghost guns” are a potential nightmare for law enforcement, especially for countries outside the U.S. where the release is coming as a surprise.

Plans for the American-designed gun were originally posted online in 2013, but the U.S. State Department ordered them to be taken down on the grounds that they might be used to make weapons outside the United States.

The Trump administration reversed that decision last month, in an unexpected settlement allowing designer Cody Wilson to publish the plans on his company’s website.

However, it remains to be seen what that “age” will look like, especially since the settlement does not restrict Wilson from sharing the plans with non-Americans on the internet.

First of all, we’ve been living in “the era of the untraceable, undetectable, 3D-printed gun” for years already.  It’s not even August 1, 2018 as I write this, but it took me literally one Google search to find plans for Wilson’s “Liberator” gun, easily available for download.  (Now I’m probably on a list or something, but I do it for you, readers.)

More importantly, when you get further into the Global News story, you come to realize that the “Liberator” is more of a threat to its potential users than anyone in its sights:

…the current design is fairly brittle and inefficient.

The Liberator only fires one bullet before it needs to be reloaded, making it a poor choice for a potential mass shooting. The plastic components are also known to melt after firing the first few bullets.

“It’s not a good gun,” said Dr. ginger coons, who worked on the U of T project as a PhD student in 2013. Coons, who does not capitalize her name, is now a design researcher based in the Netherlands.

She says Wilson, a self-professed libertarian, was trying to test the Second Amendment with the original design.

“It’s more of a thought experiment than a gun,” coons told Global News.

She added that the weapon must be made with a high-end printer and special plastic to function properly, and that printing a Liberator with a low-end printer would be dangerous.

She suggests it would be cheaper to build a gun from scratch using materials from the hardware store.

Canadian 3D-printing expert Kerry Stevenson says hobbyists have been tinkering with plastic gun designs for years, but most tend to be costly and fragile.

“You can make a shot or two,” Stevenson, editor of the Fabbaloo enthusiast blog, told Global News reporter Abigail Bimman. “It’s just not a practical weapon.”

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives posted a test video of Wilson’s Liberator design in 2013, in which the gun can be seen disintegrating into pieces after the first shot.

Wilson, for his part, intends to release the plans for a 3D-printed AR-15.  You’re on notice, Darwin Awards.

That doesn’t mean something more usable and deadly won’t come along as the technology improves.  But as gun enthusiast Stephen Gutowski notes on Twitter, the American firearms landscape really won’t change much at all tomorrow.  I leave it to you to determine whether that’s a good thing.

NPR’s excellent Planet Money podcast profiled Cody Wilson earlier this year.  He comes across pretty much exactly how you’d think.

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