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The Rise of the 3D-Printed Gun

The pandemic has disrupted supply lines across the country, and people are taking manufacturing into their own hands—including gun owners.

In 2013, a then-25-year-old gun rights activist named Cody Wilson opened a potential Pandora’s box when his open-source gun design collective, Defense Distributed, released plans for the Liberator. The gun, named after a famed World War II–era pistol, could be manufactured almost entirely at home, with a 3D printer.

The U.S. Department of State soon intervened, sending a letter demanding that the plans be taken down, and the Liberator files were pulled off-line. But there was no putting the lightning back in that particular bottle. More than 100,000 people downloaded the Liberator files during the two days they were live on Defense Distributed’s website. Since then, a cadre of designers have been creating, refining, and distributing their own 3D printing plans for firearms.

Chief among them is Deterrence Dispensed. One of the group’s designers, known only as “Ivan the Troll,” is part of a team responsible for two of the best-known and most advanced examples of 3D-printed firearms available today: the FGC-9 (“Fuck Gun Control-9”), a 9 mm semiautomatic firearm that uses zero regulated gun parts, and the Plastikov, the world’s first 3D-printable AKM receiver. (The receiver is the central frame where the gun’s mechanisms are housed; essentially, the part that makes a gun a gun.) The receiver can be used to build out a full AKM, a variant of the AK-47 automatic rifle.

Ivan is a co-author of a comprehensive new report, “Desktop Firearms: Emergent Small Arms Craft Production Technologies,” which runs through the history of these “wiki weapons” and offers a glimpse into this secretive world of gun-toting designers. The “troll” part of his nom de guerre is apt: He recently released a design for a 3D-printable Glock 17 magazine, the Menendez, christened after the U.S. senator from New Jersey who got Ivan banned from Twitter for posting gun design files.

As Ivan explained to me via encrypted email, Deterrence Dispensed plans to continue developing and disseminating its files as long as there’s a public demand for them. “I believe it is essential for free society to have access to hard power should free society not have true political power,” he says. “Committing information on how to make guns, amongst other things, to the public domain helps ensure hard power isn’t taken from the public.”

While 3D-printed firearms are still very much a niche concern, there are a number of reasons why an individual would want to create such a thing, especially during a worldwide economic and political crisis. Supplies of all manner of essentials have been running low, and for some people, those essentials include guns and ammunition. Several states have seen a run on gun stores, and sales have skyrocketed since the early days of the pandemic, spurred on by a bunker mentality, worries over societal unrest, and fears of federal overreach.

The spread of hyperlocalized gun manufacturing would be a gun advocate’s dream: a potentially limitless number of firearms procured without the threat of government inference or pesky regulations. At a time when ordinary consumers and state governors alike are looking for alternatives to strained supply chains, the example of 3D-printed guns raises profound questions: What happens when economic power becomes decentralized and when the means of production are seized on a small, individual scale? When people have the ability to build what they need, what use will they have for government oversight?

3D-printed guns are a way for people to arm themselves without the involvement of the federal and state governments, which are seldom in agreement anyway. Gun control advocates will shudder at the idea of opening up access to these deadly tools, but it may already be too late.

3D printing was once the sole province of the techy, the plugged-in, and—due to the astronomical cost of early machines—the well-heeled. But now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the technology has finally been democratized. While the price tag for high-end and experimental models can still run well into the thousands of dollars, it’s possible to assemble one’s own 3D printer for about $200. (At least, it was before the pandemic disrupted the supply chains between the United States and China.)

The process by which a three-dimensional object is built, layer by layer, is elegant in its simplicity. On the more basic machines, you fire up the printer, add in the printing material (usually some type of filament), load a computer-aided design, or CAD, file, and wait, watching as the design slowly builds itself into being.

Until now, 3D printing has loomed over the public imagination on the basis of its novelty, not its utility. Most people only encounter the practice via news articles about 3D-printed bikinis and “selfie” sculptures. However, that’s only the tip of the polymer-filament iceberg when it comes to understanding the great and terrible potential of this practical art form. As hospitals across the country face a severe shortage of personal protective equipment for health care workers, first responders, and other staff, 3D printing technology has become an unexpected lifeline to those confronting the crisis head-on.

A number of major corporations (including Ford, Toyota, and Nascar), universities, local businesses, and even high schools have begun manufacturing thousands of 3D-printed medical face shields, in an attempt to fill the void. The technology’s relatively quick manufacturing turnaround has made it an unexpectedly useful tool in the fight against the coronavirus. The versatility of the medium has been a boon, as well: In Italy, a company invented a way to modify a snorkeling mask into a ventilator mask using a 3D-printed attachment. 3D printing won’t be replacing traditional manufacturing anytime soon, but it’s made a significant dent in today’s acute PPE shortages.

Since April 3, workers at Makelab, a 3D printing company based in Brooklyn, have been churning out over 175 3D-printed face shields a day to donate to area hospitals. They’ve also donated 200 shields to grocery store workers at their local Trader Joe’s, in a nod to the risks these essential workers continue to face on the job. Makelab’s face shield design costs $9.25 and takes approximately one hour to manufacture. According to Makelab co-founder Christina Perla, 3D printing offers such an agile and lean supply chain that it was “a no-brainer” for her shop to start manufacturing PPE. “I’m hoping that the FDA will consider creating an approved process for approving 3D printing for more PPE use after Covid-19,” she told me by email.

Meanwhile, four students at a preparatory school in Coconut Creek, Florida, have banded together to print more than 8,500 mask extenders for frontline workers in their area. Jason Krause Jr. started the project—dubbed Earstraps—with a design he made using Fusion360 CAD software. His school, North Broward Preparatory, gave his team permission to use the school’s printers at first, but by now, thanks to a flood of donations, Team Earstraps is well on its way to becoming a full-blown PPE factory. “I think when this pandemic is over,” Krause said by email, “the world will look towards the 3D printing community as how it helped so much and how useful 3D printing is.”

As the global economy comes to a standstill, there is demand for products that range far beyond those with direct application to the coronavirus crisis. Facing a wave of racist violence spurred by government propaganda, Asian Americans have been buying guns in large numbers. First-time gun owners of every stripe are flooding gun stores granted the status of “essential businesses” following controversial legal challenges in several states. (As Ivan says, with a dose of his trademark irony: “With so many people wishing to purchase firearms, it sure seems the people—who the government is meant to serve—have deemed this type of business as essential.”)

Ivan also notes that the pandemic has illuminated the crossover between firearms aficionados and the so-called prepper community. The main connective tissue between the two, he says, is their shared appreciation for the idea of self-reliance (and, one assumes, a disinterest in what the federal government thinks is appropriate in that respect).

“There’s undoubtedly a certain aspect of self-reliance in making your own gun, even if you’re really only making one or two parts due to how federal regulation works out,” Ivan explains. “Having more ammo than you ‘need,’ more food than you ‘need,’ and more skills than you ‘need’ is a really good idea when you come to need those things. It’s like many of the preppers have been joking—everybody wanted to point and laugh at them until now, when it suddenly becomes time to be nice to that weird uncle in your family who prepared for this.”

The relative ease with which someone can now 3D-print a firearm remains far from common knowledge, but it’s a growing area of interest in the firearms community. Much like the more common DIY gun kits, which can be ordered online and generally involve drilling out lower receivers and assembling the rest, this modern spin on “ghost guns”—or guns that can’t be traced—comes without serial numbers and is perfectly legal to print and own (but not sell or manufacture). A gun built from scratch allows its owner a lot more freedom to customize and tinker than a factory model, and there’s an anarchic mix-and-match quality to many of the newer hybrid designs, which combine 3D-printed components with readily available hardware items or standard gun parts for a sturdier product.

Politicians have made fitful efforts to regulate 3D-printed firearms, and, in some instances, to ban them outright, but a lack of will from the federal government has left most of those efforts dead in the water. The Trump administration’s soft stance on guns in general has made it difficult for gun control advocates to achieve even the most basic concessions.

Still, the potential proliferation of unregulated guns constructed in basements across the country has continued to attract sporadic attention. In March, a judge issued a preliminary ban on a new set of federal rules for 3D guns, on the grounds that they would have made it too easy for civilians to access gun design files. For now, the Commerce Department and state officials will regulate—and, one assumes, crack down—on those distributing these files, while it remains legal for individuals to use them to print weapons parts at home.

Because of the panic and product shortages, Polymer80, a popular seller of DIY gun-building parts and accessories, has been experiencing a “higher than expected volume of orders.” Many of its products, which include Glock frames and AR-15 lower receivers, are out of stock. With ammunition prices soaring and customers snapping up popular firearm models, gun owners have naturally become more interested in going the DIY route, whether that’s via 3D printing or more traditional measures.

“Given that most retail gun stores can’t keep popular firearms like Glocks or AR-15s in stock, doing a parts-kit build becomes a more and more attractive option,” Ivan explains. “In several states, the background check process is taking longer than shipping a parts kit to your house and printing a lower receiver would, so it’s even a time-save on top of being the only way to get popular firearms in some places.”

The future of 3D printing will map out in different ways, depending on the commodity in question, but a common thread is an underlying turn toward self-sufficiency, as well as an accompanying disregard for laws and regulations that attempt to block access to these products. Second Amendment absolutists and right-wing extremists are certainly a loud contingent in American culture and have always had a contentious relationship with centralized authority, but now everyone else does, too. We’ve been told that, unless we’re on death’s door, we must white-knuckle a debilitating virus at home. We’ve been told that the states are on their own in fighting this invisible enemy, that no cavalry is coming. There is a vacuum at the center, and we all know nature abhors a vacuum.

It is the type of environment that allows subcultures on the fringe to flourish. Gun rights activists have long maintained that people have to fend for themselves, that they can’t rely on the government to protect them—and in this case, it turns out that they were right. 3D technology’s full potential has yet to be unlocked, and we only have a tenuous understanding of the major players in this emerging market—the creators, the protectors, and the destroyers. The only thing that seems safe to predict right now is that the future belongs to all three.