Is the Plastic Gun Legal – and Does It Matter?

Depending on your political bent, Cody Wilson is either a Second Amendment hero or the most subversive man in the country. In early May, the Texas man announced that he had succeeded in printing a working gun using a 3-D printer. The announcement and the subsequent release of the plans required to print the plastic gun touched off a firestorm of controversy on all sides of the political spectrum. Can you really print a gun at home using plans from the Internet?

Yes and no.

The technology exists to print 3-D objects, including guns, using plastic “ink” and high-tech printers that cost between $2,000 and $250,000 each. Few people have access to the printers, though that number will certainly grow as the technology gets cheaper and cheaper. But, the owner of a 3-D printing company in Chicago told a reporter, it’s really not that easy to print a gun on these printers. For one thing, the printers don’t really come consumer-ready and user-friendly out of the box – and they are prohibitively expensive. And, while this particular shop will print 3-D objects to order, The 3D Printer Experience has a strict policy against printing guns or anything that even looks like a gun.

The same can’t be said for everyone, though. It’s just a matter of time until someone with more business sense than concern about an undetectable gun in the hands of anyone who can afford to pay for the printing recognizes a hugely profitable business model. But is it legal to print undetectable plastic guns – and does it actually matter?

In a nutshell, the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 makes it illegal to manufacture a gun that is undetectable with a metal detector. The plans for The Liberator – the grandiose name given the plastic printed gun by its maker – include a metal firing pin, which, by itself is not enough to set off most metal detectors, and a 6-oz piece of superfluous metal included in the plans specifically to make the gun detectable by metal detectors. Needless to say, there’s nothing stopping someone from printing up a version without the superfluous piece that was included just to make the gun legal to manufacture.

The plans were released on the website of Defense Distributed, a nonprofit that was organized to produce and publish information about the 3D printing of guns and disseminate printable blueprints for a working firearm. The plans were downloaded about 100,000 times before they were pulled off the website.

The organization – and Wilson – proclaims a lofty impact for their project: making governments behave differently by forcing them to operate on the assumption that every citizen has access to a firearm through the Internet. It’s an interesting thought experiment, if one believes that the people who will avail themselves of the 3D gun plans are citizens who are arming to protect themselves against the government.

It will be interesting to see how lawmakers react to the ability to print guns that are undetectable by today’s metal detectors. Perhaps they will be able to find a way to make the plastics detectable – or create a device to detect them. Let’s see if any of our lawmakers are smart enough to figure that out.