February 20, 2013

3-D printers complicate attempts to control guns

The new technology can be used to create plastic rifle parts and ammunition magazines, a potentially easy way around restrictions.

By Michael S. Rosenwald / The Washington Post

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Travis Lerol, a 30-year-old software engineer, holds an AR-15 assault rifle with a plastic lower receiver, the part that includes the firing mechanism, which he can make using his 3-D printer.

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Travis Lerol uses his 3-D printer to create plastic rifle parts at his home in Glen Burnie, Md. “There’s really no one controlling what you do in your own home,” he said.

Washington Post photos by Jahi Chikwendiu

"This is a symbolic challenge to a system that says we can see everything, regulate everything," he said. "I say, 'Oh really?' My challenge is: Regulate this. I hope with that challenge we create such an insurmountable problem that the mere effort of trying to regulate this explodes any regulatory regime."

Wilson's group has posted several videos to YouTube of AR-15s firing rounds with 3-D printed high-capacity magazines and lower receivers, the part that includes the firing mechanism and is the only regulated portion of the gun if it's bought over the counter. Wilson's parts are made from high-grade polymer and retrofitted to the bodies of existing weapons. The receivers are made able to fire by adding over-the-counter springs, pins and a trigger.

In one recent video, Wilson fires dozens of rounds from an M-16 using a 3-D printed high-capacity magazine. "How's that national conversation going?" he asks.

Defense Distributed also runs a website called Defcad, where anyone can download gun designs and trade tips. The other day, a user posted this question to a discussion board on the site: "I know nothing of 3d printers. I can tell there are a few different types of materials to print and some appear to be easier to break than others. What printer and material is the best for printing a receiver and mags?"

Lerol, working in his spare bedroom, is using a $1,300 machine called the Cube, which is made by a division of 3D Systems, a large publicly traded manufacturer of consumer and industrial 3-D printing machines. The cheaper, consumer versions of 3-D printers like the one Lerol uses are only capable of printing with plastics, while more expensive, industrial-scale machines can print with sturdier materials such as high-grade polymers.

Experts expect printer prices to fall as part of the normal technology curve. (Think about the price of flat screen TVs five years ago. Or a computer two decades ago.)

And that makes Lipson, the Cornell expert, nervous because cheaper machines could help people make cheap guns for one-time use.

"The threat is not of 3-D printing military-grade weapon components from standard blueprints on industrial 3-D printers," Lipson said. "The challenge is that 3-D printers can be used by anyone to print rogue, disposable and shoddy guns that could be used to fire a few rounds, then be recycled into a flower vase."

Although Lerol acknowledges how easy these machines make it to get around regulations, his motivations, he said, are benign. He is a tinkerer, he likes guns and he likes messing around the house. He insists he has no interest in flouting whatever restrictions might win approval, but gun-control advocates and some legislators worry that not everyone's motivations will be so pure.

"It's not necessarily the technology, it's the ideology," said Joshua Horwitz, the executive director of Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "If this insurrectionist philosophy was to gain traction, people will normalize this behavior."

Legislators pushing for additional gun control say that 3-D printing is on their radars, but it's unclear whether they can do anything about it.

Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., a member of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, said in a statement that he has "raised concerns" about 3-D printing to task force representatives but that "more information is necessary to properly address this complex, yet still nascent issue." He adds that he would "explore appropriate policy solutions to ensure it is not utilized in a manner that poses a threat to public safety."

Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., wants to renew a law he thinks could protect the country from the threat of 3-D printed guns: the Undetectable Firearms Act. Passed in 1988, the law prohibits manufacturing or possessing a gun that can't be detected by airport security scanners. The law expires at the end of the year. Israel also wants to update it to include plastic ammunition magazines.

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