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

(Continued from page 2)

click image to enlarge

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

"I believe that 3-D printers can change the world for the better," Israel said. "What I am concerned with is the proliferation of weapons and weapons components made by 3-D printers, which can be easily brought onto airplanes and other high-security environments and do grave damage."

Israel said 3-D printed guns haven't received the scrutiny they deserve.

"The technology is proceeding so rapidly that when I talk about three-dimensional guns, people think I'm talking about a 'Star Trek' plot," he said. "When I show them how easy it is to make, most people are shocked. When I tell them the law that would stop these plastic guns from getting onto planes is expiring in just a few months, people are appalled."

Three-dimensional printer companies are also worried. After the Sandy Hook shooting in December, MakerBot removed gun designs from a website of downloadable blueprints it maintains for users of its 3-D printers. Stratasys, another major 3-D printing company, leased a machine to Wilson last year, but company officials confiscated it after learning of Wilson's plans.

"We believe Mr. Wilson intended to use Stratasys property to produce a weapon that is illegal according to the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988," the company said in a statement. "It is the legal responsibility of Stratasys not to knowingly allow its property to be used for illegal purposes."

3D Systems, the company that makes Lerol's machine, has also closely been monitoring the gun developments. Abe Reichental, the company's chief executive, said he is open to working with members of the industry and legislators to restrict certain shapes from being printed.

"We don't want to prevent printing anything that is legal and proper," he said. "But we want to be responsible. We want to do good. We want to be a force that helps shape the goodness of this technology and its use."

But even if companies somehow restricted printing certain shapes from their machines, Lipson, the 3-D printing expert from Cornell, said that wouldn't do much good because there are open-source, self-built printers on the market that aren't connected to the mainstream printing community.

He suggests better controls on gunpowder, since "weapons will be difficult to control."


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