The Great 3D Printed Plastic Gun Hysteria and How it Reflects How Technology (including SSL) is Approached

Posted: August 3, 2018 in General Commentary, Technology at Large
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Recently, there has been news hysteria about the availability of 3D printed gun plans, and the implications of such a product being made available to the general public. There are several facts that must be squared away before this “news” story can be effectively dissected and understood.

This image came from: describing an ATF test. Note that the little metal cube is required to make this weapon legal to own – see below.

The latest round of concern on this topic came after Cody Wilson announced he would publish plans for download for anyone to print using a 3D printer. First of all, the stories make it appear that this is the first time that someone would have access to plans and files to print a gun on a 3D printer. That is complete rubbish. 3D printable gun files, plans and documents have been on line for many years. Makerbot’s own web site had many free to the public files, until it recently removed them. The Liberator itself is an old design (2013) that has been available on line before.

Cody Wilson is standing on the 2nd Amendment like so many other gun “enthusiasts”. He is milking it for publicity, and has accomplished that. Interestingly, when he was confronted by the ATF in 2012, he was not jailed for production of an undetectable firearm – he was, instead, issued a license to manufacture, which means he can now produce these weapons and sell them. Apparently, the ATF  had no concern to address with Cody Wilson, leaving us to wonder exactly why all the noise now?  Media outlets are now elevating Cody and his organization to public recognition, while he holds an ATF license to manufacture. In fact, Defense Distributed offers information on creating guns using CNC processes, under its Ghost Gunner open source project (machines and plans offered), which has far greater potential for creating serious firearms without serial numbers, made by individuals, from metal and polymer materials – so 3D printing of one gun is but a small part of the story. Yet, the story is all about the threat of 3D printed guns.

The Reality is that Anyone Can Legally Make a Gun Without a License

The implication is that anyone with a 3D printer can now produce a gun that is unregistered. This is a fact. However, this is not unique to 3D printing to make a gun. Anyone can make a gun for personal use, with any method they may choose. The ATF stance is as follows:

A license is not required to make a firearm solely for personal use. However, a license is required to manufacture firearms for sale or distribution. The law prohibits a person from assembling a non–sporting semiautomatic rifle or shotgun from 10 or more imported parts, as well as firearms that cannot be detected by metal detectors or x–ray machines. In addition, the making of an NFA firearm requires a tax payment and advance approval by ATF.

[18 U.S.C. 922(o), (p) and (r); 26 U.S.C. 5822; 27 CFR 478.39, 479.62 and 479.105]

In other words, you can make a gun from pipe, bits of wood and a rubber band (zip guns dating decades ago), with as much reliability, less cost, and as great of accuracy as anything being printed with a 3D printer. The fact is, anyone with technical knowledge and access to hand tools, a drill press, a lathe, or a manual mill can make a very solid weapon out of uncontrolled materials available in the general market. Further, those with the ability to program machines to make parts, specifically CNC processes on an automated milling center and/or lathe can create real weapons, as many semi-auto pistols and AR platform rifles are manufactured on this type of equipment. Anyone can learn to cast metal, mold plastic, or carve plastic or wood. Making a rudimentary gun actually requires very little special skill.

There is also the assumption that a 3D printed gun that is undetectable is legal to produce. This is patently false. The Undetectable Firearms Act (renewed through 2023) specifically prohibits such weapons, made by anyone, for any reason (from Wikipedia):

The United States Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 (18 U.S.C. § 922(p)) makes it illegal to manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer, or receive any firearm that is not as detectable by walk-through metal detection as a security exemplar containing 3.7 oz (105 g) of steel, or any firearm with major components that do not generate an accurate image before standard airport imaging technology.

Note that to make the guns legal to own, anyone printing one is required to insert at least 3.7 oz of steel into it, to make it detectable. That means anyone who prints one and leaves that out will serve a mandatory federal jail time, even if it is never fired – or, as demonstrated in the Cody Wilson case, be issued a licence by the ATF to manufacturer weapons. Yeah, now that is something to scratch ones head about.

The facts are clear. Anyone can make a gun, with whatever materials they wish, in any manner they like, using whatever processes that suits them. As long as it is detectable, it is legal to own. So, the 3D print gun approach is but one of many methods to attain a similar result, and not particularly the cheapest, safest or most reliable one. In fact, if the intent is to make a reliable weapon that is undetectable (illegal as noted) for nefarious reasons, 3D printing is hardly the only process to accomplish that end.

The Myth of Reliable 3D Plastic Guns Easily Made by Anyone

Let us just skip over the entire issue of amateurs, with no gunsmith experience or training, with minimal knowledge of the power and explosive force that is contained in the cartridges they might fire – and the implications of that. There is a definite Darwin Effect involved here, where those with the least knowledge and expertise, will likely end themselves or do themselves serious injury, before doing any harm to others.

Before anyone considers printing one of these and firing it, I highly recommend they first download and print another complicated device….

… like this prosthetic hand, which can also be downloaded on-line. Since assembling one of these requires two hands, creating one and testing it first increases the chance of success when it is needed after the operators hand is destroyed by his poorly made plastic weapon. Remember to print the hand you intend to hold the gun with. Having the wrong hand at the ready could be really embarrassing.

The fact is, 3D printed plastic guns are just as likely to blow the hand off the operator, as they are to send a projectile down range. Even those that do operate correctly, have very limited longevity (2-8 rounds or so), exhibit poor accuracy, and are prone to miss-fire. The idea that anyone with a 3D printer now making bobble head toys, will be able to make a viable weapon is preposterous.  The majority of 3D printer owners operate equipment that produces marginal quality parts using materials of questionable strength. Further, the wrong printer settings, or wrong material selection, will produce weak parts that will deliver catastrophic results. I own and operate several 3D printers, from a large expensive commercial unit, to a typical consumer/hobbyist grade machine. While the big commercial machine would definitely produce a reasonably strong printed plastic gun (the same one that Stratasys demanded be returned when they discovered Cody Wilson using it to make guns), I have no such confidence that the majority of the consumer/hobbyist machines can do the same with any degree of certainty or accuracy. Of the hobby operators I know 1 out of 5 might get the job done well enough to be considered relative safe. The others would find themselves discovering how expensive and time consuming physical therapy is when recovering from serious injury. I do not print guns on my printer, I have far better things to do with my time and life.

There is an inherent weakness in 3D printing that is too often overlooked. Layer bond strength. 3D printing is done by printing a series of layers of material on top of one another. The heat of one layer bonds it to the previous layer. However, the strength of parts is not uniform. Most parts are several times stronger along the layer direction than between layers. Poor bond strength is the kiss of death for parts put under stress.  Get it right and the part is serviceable. Get it wrong, and the part will come apart like puff pastry.

That all said, and assuming the printer operator does indeed set up the machine correctly and uses an appropriate material, there is the question of capability to assemble the device in such a way as to produce a safe gun ready to fire. Add to this the reality that a few shots is all these guns are worth, requiring hours of printing time, careful assembly, and… here’s a major issue… testing to prove the product is as intended. Testing is a serious issue, since each firing places stresses on the plastic components. One test fire can be as much as 33% of the items total life of 3 rounds. With each firing, the likelihood of failure increases. While there are tests showing some designs lasting more than 8 rounds, the fact is, each printed part is susceptible to variablity. The individual making the gun has no idea how long his/her particular weapon will last. Could be zero rounds (immediate failure), could be many rounds – before it fails. Every 3D printer is different, every material has its own character, every printer operator comes to the table with a mixed bag of experience and knowledge. How the weapon fails is equally unknown. Unlike true gun makers, who test their product rigorously, serious testing of a 3D printed gun is not possible.

The potential for injury to the shooter is as varied and unpredictable as the individuals making them.

I know of professional model makers that use 3D printers regularly, that I would not trust to make a gun on the same machines. I have seen hundreds of 3D printers, printed products, and materials samples. Most of the low end machines are terrible at holding tolerances or layer bond strength anywhere near what is required to make a safe firearm. Without extensive understanding how the machines work, testing for accuracy, proper selection of materials and process setup, the success rate (operation without critical failure) is going to be all over the map.

Some will comment that there are many “plastic” guns manufactured today, that plastic is an acceptable material for construction. This is patently false. There are polymer frame hand guns, polymer frame rifles and rifle stocks, to be sure. But the polymer used is not the same as the plastics printed on a 3D printer. Further, polymer weapon components are made in high pressure molds, the materials are filled with glass and other strengthening fibers to make them strong, and the density of material used is significantly greater than anything any 3D printer is capable of producing. Even more critical here, is that polymer frame weapons rely on metal for their structural components. Even further, there are no guns made with plastic barrels, plastic firing mechanisms, or firing chambers.

I also have to laugh at the reviews of these weapons. Their accuracy is appalling. One showed a pattern of 10″ at a distance of 11 yards. That’s horrible. I can attain a pattern under 3/4″ at a distance of 25 yards with a worn out Highway Patrolman revolver using wad cutter slugs, and 1/2″ at 100 yards with a 22 cal rifle, tighter still with a .308. The accuracy of these supposed deadly devices is laughable. Consider that these are single shot pistols, missing by 10″ is a massive fail. Maybe it was the shooter shaking in fear for his own survival that hurt accuracy?

Practical Reality

3D printers are not free. For legitimate gun hobbyists, buying a 3D printer to make a gun is nonsense. One can purchase several legitimate, safe, accurate, resell-able, and long lasting hand guns and rifles for the price of the printer alone. Even criminals will find the cost of a 3D printer silly, compared to the cost of unregistered, black market guns floating around the market. Even for those intent on criminal acts with an undetectable fire-arm, building a functional undetectable weapon without 3D printing is very achievable. For those wanting more technology in their process of illegal gun creation, a small manual mill, or hobby level CNC machining center is less costly than a 3D printer, and can make weapons from far stronger materials, that are just as undetectable, and potentially more lethal than anything printed on a common 3D printer.

Another issue with 3D printing is that the builder must be capable of designing and interpreting parts in 3D CAD programs. This is not an easy skill to learn. Many will short cut this by downloading someone else’s files – leaving the issue of robust design and engineering viability to someone on the web… not exactly the smartest move in today’s malarkey filled inter-webs.

One may argue that there are metal guns being printed on metal printing 3D printers, which is true. Those printers cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, requiring very specialized knowledge and materials that even make NASA cringe. The resulting guns are no better than what can be purchased at a Walmart store for a few hundred dollars, or from a black market source for about the same, with untraceable origins. But hey, if you are wealthy and feel that having no serial number on your gun is that important, knock yourself out.

One could also use 3D printed parts as patterns for metal casting. But the cost and time involved make little sense for a one-off gun just to avoid a serial number.

Why the Panic Attack over the 3D Printed Gun?

This gets to my real point of this exploration. People fear what they don’t understand. Journalists are easily suckered into stories that create sensation, draw in readers, and create controversy. 3D printers are being portrayed as magic boxes that can economically make anything the imagination might desire. It’s what 3D printer marketers are claiming (sound familiar). This implies that someone determined to do bodily injury can use one to print a weapon that is undetectable, to board an airplane with, or to take into a school or church. We too easily forget that 9/11 was accomplished with lowly plastic box cutters. This fear is then amplified by associating all of the issues of the current laws in place, to one specific example, as though it represents the entire issue. In fact, 3D printed guns, as I have discussed here, are the least dangerous of all, more likely to harm those who make them than will ever be used in the execution of a criminal act. Yet, the hysterics shut down (temporarily) the offering of 3D printable files to make that one specific gun (Liberator), while dozens of others are already in the ether, being downloaded as you read this. Further, actual gun designers, with true skill and expertise, are using more reliable processes and materials to create undetectable weapons, projectiles, magazines, silencers, and other devices that are far more lethal than some 3D printed small caliber single shot hand gun of questionable quality made by amateurs operating low grade printers bought on line. we are not allowed to talk about the legality of all this, lest we be attacked by the 2nd Amendment zealots, so best to keep the freak pointed at a product, no matter how questionable it actually is. Oh yeah, having the Liberator off-line means nothing. Anyone that already has the file, or access to a 3D CAD program can reverse engineer that product from images on the web, or design a superior product from scratch, and hand copies to friends and family through email, Drop Box, or USB key. Owning the file and making the gun is not illegal. Stopping the file from being downloaded at this point solves nothing.

And this Applies to SSL how?

This illustrates the crazy process we live through with the advent of any new technology. LEDs are facing a similar hysteria by a base of amateur “lighting experts” who read an unsupportable, un-vetted article proclaiming that LED generates killer spectral energies that are destroying our health, eyes, wildlife, or what ever is latest in the ebb and flow of panic that lighting has always embraced. The first incandescent lamps created an all-out panic about the spectral energies destroying health, and injuring the eyes – yes, the very same incandescent lamps now held in high regard as the benchmark of lighting perfection. High Pressure Sodium is systematically replaced with Metal Halide, due to issues of visual color performance, and acuity, but are now held up as an example of a superior technology to the inferior LED. Like moths to the flame, lighting attracts more than its share of individuals who see change as a concern, who explode small parts of scientific publications into grand conspiratorial discussions about how the “Lighting Industry” is trying to blind and kill us all.

Just as the 3D printed gun has captured the imaginations of many, the LED has drawn more than its fair share of critics, zealots,  and panicked citizens. In an age we believe to be enlightened and intelligent, with almost infinite information available to us, we still behave like sheepish children in the face of advancing technology. Just as the 3D printer produces no more deadly a weapon as any number of other processes, the LED is no more a threat to us than any other artificial light source.

The fact is, under all of the freaking out about the growth of SSL technology, one underlying discovery, one simple truth, one elemental reality escapes with minimal note. What is this element, you might ask? It is ignorance. We are having technical discussions about what light source is doing what to whom, while ignoring the one reality that surrounds us unrecognized. That is the reality that artificial light, of any type, is less healthy that natural light. There is no resolution to this, as buildings are closed spaces, requiring supplemental light to be functional. Get over it already and begin to seek practical solutions we can all benefit from. Posting some outrageous claims on the inter-web is not a means to that end, it only appeases our national sense of moral outrage, and results in zero positive progress. Believe me, those working positively to better lighting are ignoring the raging discussions, and blocking abusive posters every day.

If we spent as much time fretting about what a technology might do, on productively defining what qualities in light do we want to specifically improve, what we want to establish as superior, and what we wish to eliminate, we’d be further along. For example, blue light has become the 3D printed gun in LED lighting deployment, with the same level of hysterics. Meanwhile, the SPD of light sources, illuminance level standards, measurement and control of glare/brightness, effect of color perception at various illuminance levels, etc… etc… are not discussed in positive, proactive terms.

As both a lighting professional and a marksman, I find the current level of irrational raging debate about 3D printed guns – which have not yet been used in a single shooting incident – at the same level as the hysteria over the deployment of modern lighting technologies. We really need to get better at this than we are, as a collective humanity, or we will continue to suffer from continual procrastination and retarded deployment of important, truly beneficial technologies. This requires we all dig into the details, do more critical thinking, seek proactive, positive solutions over simple negative, non-productive critique, and full realization that change is inevitable. We are no more going to stop people from making guns on whatever little machines they have at home, than we are going to return to the glory days of incandescent lighting.

Step one to positive progress – Dig into the topic in depth, understand the nuances, qualify the sources of information, and the motives of those attempting to influence. Then, seek a path to improve your immediate environment, then apply that to the rest of the world. Get past the worry about a 3D printed gun or ugly LED installation, and find a way to make life better with the positive, quality technologies also readily available – often seeking notice in a world so busy creaming about nonsense it fails to see there is good well at hand to be captured.

So, that is how I came to connecting SSL to 3D printed guns. Crazy.


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