It’s been awhile since my last blog post where I talked about how 3D printed firearms will never be a real threat. Since then several designs have popped up with improved durability, effectiveness and even the number of rounds they can hold. These developments have led to more people fearing a flood of unregistered, 3D printed plastic firearms filling the streets. However, the real threat does not come from guns made entirely of plastic. Instead, it is the use of 3D printed parts in traditional firearms that must be watched carefully.
A fully 3D printed gun is impractical for many reasons. Yes, they can be produced far more cheaply than going out and buying a gun – excluding the initial cost of the printer – and they are much harder to trace, but the fully 3D printable guns designed thus far are awkward, unreliable and pose as much a threat to the user as the target. Further more, most of these guns can only hold one small-caliber round at a time. It would be pretty hard to carry out any crime when you have to remove the entire barrel of the gun to load a round like you do with the Grizzly, a Canadian-made 3D printed rifle.
Now most people are aware that when you buy a gun you must go through a background check, after which, the gun is registered to you, but what most people may not know is that, for the most part, you do not need to go through this process when buying parts for a gun. I could go out and buy a gun barrel, a stock or a firing pin without filling out any paperwork. Only certain parts must be registered upon purchase and these parts can easily be produced with a 3D printer.
One such part is the lower receiver of the AR-15 rifle. The lower receiver is a key component of the rifle and, under U.S. law, is the only component legally recognized as a firearm. As such, purchasing one requires you to go through all the same steps as purchasing a complete firearm. However, lower receivers can easily be produced with a 3D printer and can thus avoid registration. Since the lower receiver does not experience high pressures, the chance of these parts failing is much less than a fully 3D printed firearm.
Skirting the process of registering lower receivers is nothing new. A whole market place exists of lower receivers marketed as 80% complete. These parts are made of metal, but they lack certain holes required to attach other parts of the firearm. Because of this, they are not considered complete lower receivers and do not require registration. With the right tools and knowhow, people can buy these parts, add the necessary holes and build a completely unregistered firearm. Fortunately, most people do not have the skills or equipment to complete these receivers, but 3D printing would allow someone with no gun smithing knowledge to print a 100% complete lower receiver and still build a functioning, high powered, unregistered firearm.
There is a legitimate threat posed by the use of 3D printing to create unregistered firearms and components to firearms, but the fear that the U.S. or even the world will fall into chaos because of it is over hyped. Hobby level 3D printing is still in its infancy and it is doubtful that people will be mass producing lower receivers any time soon, but it is something that government organizations like the Bureau of Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) needs to start developing strategies to handle. These strategies will need to address the concerns of citizens while simultaneously protecting the rights of firearms owners.
Michael Jermann, assistant editor