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New Printable Handgun Raises Concerns for Undetectability, Universal Access

May 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Cody Wilson, a law student from Texas, has made the first fully functioning plastic pistol from a 3-D printer, sparking questions and concerns about legal and safety implications. Ray Suarez talks with with Forbes magazine's Andy Greenberg about how the homemade gun known as "the Liberator" figures in a broader national debate.
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RAY SUAREZ: More about this technology, the man behind the project and the questions this all raises from Andy Greenberg of Forbes. He’s been covering this story and was in Austin when Cody Wilson first tested the gun.

And, Andy, now that this threshold has been crossed and we know it can be done, I guess the first question is whether it’s hard for regular people to do.

ANDY GREENBERG, Forbes: I think it is actually pretty difficult for now.

The machine that Cody Wilson and his — his cohorts used was an actual — was an $8,000 dollar used very high-tech Stratasys 3-D printer. So this isn’t the kind of $2,000 dollar MakerBot, like the kind of Apple tool of 3-D printers that people are getting excited about today. This is a more industrial machine.

But this is really — the story is about the future. It’s only going to be a couple of years before what Wilson is doing is affordable for regular people.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you were there. You watched it being used. It didn’t blow up in his hand or shatter into plastic shards.

Is this a sturdy, reliable, reusable firearm, or a one-and-done kind of weapon?

ANDY GREENBERG: Well, it actually does seem to be fairly durable.

I have watched videos of a 3-D printed barrel being fired 10 times without cracking. And I did see Cody Wilson fire his Liberator handgun twice, once with a remote trigger pull with the string and once by hand. And it didn’t explode or crack those times either.

But it’s unclear whether this is, you know, a durable weapon. I think the key thing to remember, though, is that it has a barrel that can be swapped out. So, you can print a new barrel in just a couple of hours. And he showed me that he had kind of a case full of barrels. It would be really simple to kind of print out four or five of these and have them ready to go.

So, even if the barrel of this homemade weapon is deformed and doesn’t work, you can — you always have another one ready. That’s part of the danger of this gun.

RAY SUAREZ: If you remember the last big round of speculation about plastic weapons, it really focused a lot on their indetectability in magnetometers and other kinds of screeners.

But this time, it’s the do-it-yourself-at-home aspect that’s getting more attention, isn’t it?

ANDY GREENBERG: I think that — I think that that’s warranted.

The fact that Steve Israel and Chuck Schumer, these two congressmen, are focused on the undetectability of the weapon I think kind of misses the point. They’re trying to renew the Undetectable Firearms Act to prevent this. But, in fact, it’s not the fact that this gun is plastic and can’t be detected by a metal detector that makes it dangerous. It’s the fact that anyone can create it in the privacy of their garage with a couple of clicks and some software and a download from the Internet.

Anywhere that there’s a computer and an Internet connection, there’s the promise of a gun. That’s exactly what Cody Wilson said to me. He’s focused, as the name of his group implies, on the distributed nature of this weapon, the fact that it circumvents gun control, not that it circumvents metal detectors.

RAY SUAREZ: So, what exactly is his motivation? You touched on it briefly, but does he want more people to have guns? Is his problem really with the attempt to know who has them and who doesn’t? Where does he come from?

ANDY GREENBERG: I think that Cody would be happy to see more guns in Americans’ hands.

But his ultimate goal, I believe, and he has told me, is the dissolution of the U.S. government and governments around the world. He’s an anarchist and a radical libertarian. And I think he sees this exercise of making a gun printable as kind of a demonstration of ways that the technology can circumvent the law, can circumvent — to make the government irrelevant, until it just kind of disappears, or at least kind of he wants to carve out a kind of space where technology prevents the states’ hands from controlling what people do.

And I think he’s on his way with this gun.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, from what you have seen, the fact that it’s makeable by the user, it’s got no serial number, it’s got no known signature to law enforcement, no background check necessary, is he living out his dream just by making this Liberator?

ANDY GREENBERG: I think he’s on his way.

Just a couple of months ago, Defense Distributed, this group, was focused only on creating magazines, ammunition magazines, which are basically a box with a spring inside, or components of rifles. Now they have created an entirely 3-D printed gun.

And we only know what — we can only speculate what they will do next. And I think that this gun is going to become more resilient, more usable over time, and more easily accessible by regular people with just a click and a couple of swipes of a mouse.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, he’s inserted a piece of metal to make it comply with current law. But isn’t that something of a fig leaf? Does this kind of weapon, minus that piece of metal, which becomes optional if you’re making it at home, make gun laws obsolete?

ANDY GREENBERG: Well, Cody is very clever.

He’s a law student at the University of Texas. And his strategy has been what he calls over-compliance. He wants to do what he’s doing in an absolutely legal way, and yet enable people to do illegal things. So, he’s kind of untouchable. And his strategy has been to insert this chunk of steel into the prototype.

That’s the one he’s been testing. But, in fact, if you print it at home, there’s no guarantee that — or there’s no need for you to put that metal in it. It serves no purpose. There is a steel nail in the gun, but that’s — you can buy that at any hardware store.

There’s this other chunk of — the six-ounce chunk of metal that he inserted only to kind of make it comply with the Undetectable Firearms Act. But, as you said, that’s a fig leaf. Anyone who prints it at home has no requirement to include that metal in the gun and render it detectable by metal detectors.

RAY SUAREZ: Andy Greenberg of Forbes magazine, thanks for joining us.

ANDY GREENBERG: Thank you very much.