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3D-printed guns could soon pose challenge to regulators

It’s been five years since Cody Wilson fired the first 3D-printed gun. This week, the self-described anarchist plans to release its blueprint to the world on the internet, allowing anyone with access to a 3D printer to create their own “ghost guns”—firearms that are untraceable, unregulated, and unregistered.

Last week, three organizations—the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety, and Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence—joined together in a last-minute effort to block the Trump administration from allowing Americans the ability to access the instructions. The coalition sent a letter to a federal judge in Texas on July 24, but their bid was dismissed on Friday.

And so, on August 1, following several years of litigation, Wilson will be able to legally publish the schematic designs of his 3D single-shot pistol on the fire-sharing site DEFCAD, which is run by his non-profit, Defense Distributed. He also plans to release instructions for a variety of other firearms, including AR-10 and AR-15 style rifles, which have been used in several mass shootings.

In big, bold letters, the company’s homepage now boasts, “The age of the downloadable gun formally begins,” a notion that has alarmed both lawmakers and gun reform activists on what this could mean for gun regulation in the United States.

How the “ghost gun” got its start

In 2013, Cody Wilson first posted the printing manual of his 3D printed gun, the Liberator, online. The software coded was downloaded more than 100,00 times in the span of a few days, before the federal government ordered him to remove the instructions. He obliged, but eventually filed a lawsuit against the State Department in U.S. District Court for the District of Western Texas two years later.

Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, the U.S. State Department said the online gun instructions posed a national security risk and violated the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) export laws. Wilson pushed back with his own lawsuit, arguing the government was violating his rights to free speech and bear arms as outlined in the Constitution.

Years of litigation followed, but in June, the State Department and Texas-based Defense Distributed reached a settlement that would allow Wilson and his company to publish the gun blueprints, surprising many within the gun reform movement, since up until that point, the federal government had prevailed in court. According to The New York Times, the government also agreed to pay nearly Wilson’s $40,000 legal fees.

“It’s very odd for the government to have won all steps in the case so far and then do such an about face,” said Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

What’s at stake

According to Gardiner, the recent settlement is concerning on both the domestic and international fronts. In the U.S., at-home gunsmithing isn’t new. Federal law allows anyone to manufacture their own firearm, but does require a license to sell or distribute them. But 3D-printed guns do not require much skill or training; anyone can produce their own gun with ease if they have access to a 3D printer. It would also allow people who might otherwise fail a background check to possess a gun, like convicted felons or domestic abusers.

Gardiner also worries about the potential of foreign terrorist groups or drug traffickers to access the blueprints. “So now you’re talking about foreign terrorists being able to 3D print guns they might have difficulty getting otherwise,” Gardiner said. “If they’re made of plastic, they’re undetectable at airports.”

Some lawmakers say they are also concerned about the traceability and detectability of 3D-printed firearms. Because they’re produced at home, these guns wouldn’t have serial numbers like their mass-produced counterparts, making it difficult for the federal government to track them. The guns could also more easily avoid metal detection since they’re made of plastic. Wilson made his pistol almost entirely out of ABS plastic, the same material used to make Lego toys.

He did, however, include a metal firing pin in his gun, as well as another piece of extraneous metal, to comply with the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, a federal law making it illegal to “manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer, or receive” firearms that can’t be detected by metal detectors. Congress extended the law in 2013, but did not update it to account for 3D printing technology, like requiring weapons to contain at least one necessary component that’s easily detectable. As is, the law doesn’t stipulate what parts of the gun must be metal, and so it could be an immaterial component that, once removed, would leave the gun operable and undetected.

For some, the panic surrounding “ghost guns” is unjustified. “I think it’s misdirected anxiety about something that’s not really very important,” said Andrew McClurg, a law professor at the University of Memphis and expert on firearms policy. “It’s much ado about nothing in the big picture.”

The U.S. already has its fair share of illegal and untraceable guns, thanks to obliterated serial numbers, rates of stolen firearms, and loose regulations, he said. Given the return on investment, instead of opting for 3D-printed “ghost guns,” McClurg says criminals will continue finding  “illicit guns that are more powerful and have far greater firepower capability,” versus going through the trouble of acquiring the equipment to produce their own plastic guns.

“For every person killed with 3D-printed guns, there will be probably five people shot in Memphis that night with real guns, or Chicago, Baltimore, or any high-crime area,” he said. “While we’re paying attention to this novelty item, we’re doing an injustice to the bigger picture and bigger cause.”

Can the U.S. regulate “ghost guns”?

The rise of the “ghost gun” presents a regulatory challenge, but a few local and state governments are already taking measures to restrict the manufacturing and usage of these DIY guns.

In New Jersey, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal sent a cease-and-desist letter to Wilson last Thursday, threatening legal action should his company make the gun designs public. “The files you plan to publish offer individuals, including criminals, codes that they can use to create untraceable firearms–and even to make assault weapons that are illegal in my state,” he wrote.

Back in 2013, Philadelphia became the first U.S. city to ban 3D-printed firearms, around the same time Wilson first fired The Liberator. And in California, Governor Jerry Brown passed a law in 2016 requiring those who make 3D-printed firearms to apply for a serial number from the Department of Justice; the law takes effect this year. The state has also introduced legislation mandating 3D-printed guns must contain a piece of stainless steel, so they don’t evade metal detectors—a de facto modernization of the federal Undetectable Firearms Act.  

At the federal level, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer has demanded the government reverse its June decision. At a press conference on July 22, he said, “The danger that could happen can be enormous. To have crazy people have easy access, to have terrorists have easy access to this kind of website and allow them to make plastic AR 15s undetected — so-called “ghost guns” — justifies the imagination,” according to the . On July 23, Schumer’s fellow lawmakers, including Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking him to explain the government’s recent settlement decision.

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