From prosthetic legs to cars, 3D printing is a manufacturing game-changer.

The much-hyped technology has made it possible to manufacture three dimensional objects from a digital file. It works by building up thin layers of material into a shape controlled by the digital file, meaning that objects can be produced accurately and quickly.

However, one organisation has utilised the technology for a different purpose: the manufacture of 3D-printed guns. Blocked by US lawmakers today, what are printable guns, and are they a cause for concern?

A pro-guns organisation has made it possible to print guns

Defense Distributed, an open-source digital publishing company, is using this technology to develop digital firearms files. These files can then be downloaded from the internet and used in 3D printing or CNC milling applications to ‘print’ the parts needed to build firearms. The non-profit group wants to make these files available to anyone, meaning in theory anyone with a 3D printer and ABS plastic resin can print their own guns.

3D printed guns are nothing new. Gun-rights activist and Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson produced the what is thought to be the first 3D printed gun back in 2013. Files allowing the process to be replicated were then made available on the Defense Distribution website.

In June, Defense Distribution reached an agreement with the federal government allowing the company to distribute instructions on how to make 3D printed guns. This overturns a removal notice from The State Department from 2015, during the Obama Administration, ordering Wilson to take the gun-making instructions down from the organisation’s website. He subsequently sued the government, which resulted in the settlement approving the instructions “for public release in any form.”

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However, US District Judge Robert Lasnik has a put a restraining order temporarily blocking the release of the gun blueprints on the grounds that they could be used to cause “potential irreparable harm”.

Eight other states are now suing the Trump administration to block the settlement, with lawsuits filed in Seattle.

Despite permitting the distribution of the Blueprints back in June, President Trump tweeted yesterday that he was “looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public. Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense!”

What are the dangers?

Unsurprisingly, many have expressed concern. US lawmakers are now raising concerns over these ‘ghost guns’, as they have been dubbed. The guns do not have serial numbers, making them unchecked and impossible to trace. The fact that they are made of plastic also means that they cannot be spotted by metal detectors, making it easier to conceal weapons.

They also undermine gun regulation by effectively allowing those without background checks, proof of age or permit  to own firearms.

CEO of physical security startup Evolv Technology Mike Ellenbogen told Verdcit that 3D printed guns could make it easier for individuals to “inflict destruction”:

“In an age when the number of mass shootings in the US this year has reached over 201, this is just another development that makes it even easier for anyone with ill intent to become a threat. 3D guns are untraceable and undetectable. What’s more, they represent the next generation of mass-casualty weaponry, opening the door to a host of new threats and making it easy for anyone to gain access to a weapon and inflict destruction. As security professionals, we need to be thinking about what this news means for the future of our industry and our society. Organisations need modern technologies that leverage sensors, deep learning and biometrics to seamlessly detect threats.”

How can they be regulated? The fact that no physical weapons are being sold, and the newness of the technology, makes regulating 3D printed guns a grey area.

A licence is only required only to sell or trade firearms, meaning that technically anyone can construct a gun at home. However, all firearms manufactured or imported into the US are required to have a serial number, which could be grounds for lawmakers to restrict or even ban 3D printed guns.

Are 3D printed guns a cause for concern?

The prospect of anyone having the ability to manufacture their own firearms is a startling one. However, in practice this may not yet be possible.

Research vice-president for additive manufacturing at the Gartner consulting firm Pete Basiliere told The Guardian that it would be difficult to produce a working firearm using a 3D printer:

“A typical 3D desktop printer is not up to the task. It probably won’t have the quality of build to make the gun safe. Even if the quality is acceptable, the range of materials that are used in an extrusion printer are so limited that there’s a great risk of the gun misfiring in your hand.”

Furthermore, 3D printing is not cheap. The type of 3D printer needed to produce a functioning firearm would cost several thousand dollars (3D printers that can print metal are even more expensive) meaning for now at least, they are prohibitively expensive for most people.

Founder of Fab Lab Hub Sarah Boisvert told Verdict that simply owning a 3D printer does not mean that individuals will have the expertise needed to print firearms:

“Even with CAD files from the internet, there is a fair amount of expertise required to get good prints.  It takes a higher quality printer in the $40,000+ range to get the parameters needed for something like guns.  Perhaps in the future, but not a worry today.”

Some have also pointed out that the biggest risk would be to the individual firing the gun, with the material they are made of making them likely to shatter. This was tested by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in 2013, and it found that the guns printed using Wilson’s instructions blew up when fired.