How Big of a Threat are 3D-Printed Guns Anyway?

Boston University professors weigh in on the debate surrounding 3D-printed firearms

Photo credits: justinpickard on Flickr

This summer, conversations about do-it-yourself 3D-printed guns swept the nation. It started in July, when Defense Distributed, an online, open-source organization that develops digital firearms files, reached a settlement with the US Department of State allowing the company to publish blueprints for 3D-printed guns online. Shortly after this settlement, a federal judge blocked the online publication of the blueprints citing the “possibility of irreparable harm.”

The debate about whether or not to allow such blueprints to exist openly on the internet is still ongoing and calls into question important legal, technological, and societal issues.

Boston University Professors Greg Blonder, Professor of Engineering, Andy Sellers, Law Professor and Director of BU/MIT Technology & Cyberlaw Clinic, and Michael Siegel, Professor of Community Health Sciences argue that while the threat and danger of 3D-printed firearms might be overblown, there are still critical gaps in US firearm regulation that need to be addressed.

Michael Siegel, M.D.

Professor of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health

The reality is that if all firearms were made by 3D printers, it would be a far safer country because these weapons can only be fired a few times, are inaccurate, and probably pose as much of a danger to their owners as to others. Furthermore, most (if not all) of the individuals who are interested in 3D printing of guns are true gun aficionados, not criminals. It is far easier and much more effective for someone who wants to commit a crime to obtain a firearm legally or to purchase a trafficked gun.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t closely monitor 3-D-printing technology and be concerned about the development of technology that may allow the manufacture of highly functional and truly undetectable firearms.

But the reality is that right now, what should scare the public is not 3D printable weapons but the run-of-the-mill commercially manufactured firearms that are involved in more than 36,000 fatalities each year.

What should scare the attorneys general and US senators is that in most of their states, people who have a history of violent crime already have legal access to “regular” firearms that are not produced using a 3D printer, but are much more lethal.

More specifically, what should really scare us is not the availability of firearms or even the type of firearms available or how they are manufactured, but the weak legislation in most states that allows people who are at a high risk of violence to possess guns. All stakeholders — including gun owners and even the NRA — agree that people who are a danger to themselves or others should not have access to firearms. But few politicians are willing to support laws to enforce that principle.

Photo credits: lppicture on pixabay

Greg Blonder, PhD

Inventor and Professor of Design and Product Engineering

Consumer-grade 3D printers are the tricycles of the automotive world. Sure, they’ll get you where you’re going. But, they are too small for an adult, pitifully underpowered in traffic, and soaking wet in a rainstorm.

Compared to solid plastic, 3D printed parts are more fragile by a factor of ten.

The surface is rough, parts warp in heat and distort on a humid day. Can you print a gun that will fire a bullet? Absolutely. Twice in a row and still hit the target? Doubtful.

Humans tend to project their fears and desires on the latest, shiny new thing. The “threat profile” of a plastic gun printed in your basement is minuscule. Consider the alternatives. You can (legally) buy professional-grade steel gun parts, and with a drill press or mill, easily convert to a fully operational, untraceable “ghost gun”. Of course, metal is not x-ray transparent, but the TSA has a historically high failure rate of detecting weapons upon screening, so it’s not much of a loss. Besides, hundreds of thousands of people possess the skills to machine a reliable plastic gun, so why bother with an inferior 3D imitation?

No doubt a printed gun will be used in a crime. And pundits will breathlessly decry the end of civilization. But a good engineer or leader focuses on big opportunities. If you want to blunt terrorist threats, worry about drone assassinations or cyber attacks on our infrastructure. Not an incremental inferior toy gun produced on a cheap printer.

Andrew Sellars

Director, Technology & Cyberlaw Clinic; Law Professor

The parties in the debate over 3D-printed guns have not been speaking from a common set of facts. Very often you see proponents of a ban on 3D-printed guns talk as though these computer files can print out a gun as easily as one prints a document in an office. Opponents instead liken them to blueprints or CAD files — an effective way to make parts for a gun, but safe assembly still takes some skill and know-how. What we see today is much more like a blueprint, but who’s to say we won’t see a more immediate program in the future?

And while the sides talk past each other in this present debate, the line they draw between technical information and immediate action may, in fact, be the best moment for regulatory intervention.

The more these files become like blueprints, the more important it is that they be freely disseminated, because the plans will then inform the debate we may have over the regulation of the item itself.

We have learned this lesson in the past, including most famously in the realm of nuclear non-proliferation, where attempts to control access to materials are found to be more effective than attempts to censor the dissemination of information on how to make a bomb. The efficacy of regulation — does it make sense to regulate the printer manufacturers, the printers, the plastics and raw materials companies, or companies disseminating printing information, for example — can only be known if we know exactly what one can do with this information.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts and on Instagram at @buexperts.

Cutting-edge research and commentary out of Boston University, home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and Guggenheim Scholars. Find an expert: bu.edu/experts

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