In May of this year Defence Distributed, a non-profit organisation from Texas, put up schematics for a printable gun called the ‘Liberator’ on their website. Any person with access to a 3D printer can create the sixteen components and assemble them into a working firearm. The files each contain a three dimensional model which a printer could then create out of plastic. The only non-plastic items required are a small nail to serve as a firing pin and, of course, ammunition. Along with the files, Defence Distributed uploaded a video of them successfully testing the weapon.
Guns are pretty simple machines, really. All you need is something to hold a round of ammunition and some way of hitting the bottom of that round with a sharp metal object. They are only marginally more complicated than wrenches, which 3D printers made headlines for making a few years ago. Printed guns seem to be a perfectly natural step up the complexity curve.
Nevertheless, politicians and news outlets leapt on the issue with an impressive furore. NSW Police made their feelings on printed guns very clear through several media releases and uploaded their own video of the Liberator being test-fired; in their case the barrel exploded, sending charred white plastic everywhere. Commissioner Andrew Scipione warned that, even without bullets, these types of weapons are firearms and fall under current gun legislation. “If you are even considering making one of these weapons you need to understand that not only are they illegal, but that they are enormously dangerous, both to the person that you may be choosing to use it against and to yourself,” he said.
In America, the US Department of State stepped in and requested that Defence Distributed take down the schematics for the Liberator. The webpage which previously hosted the files put a statement up claiming that “… until further notice, the United States government claims control of the information.” The files, however, can still be found via torrenting websites like PirateBay.
New York Senator Chuck Schumer argued that more legislation was needed to regulate printed weaponry. “We’re facing a situation where anyone – a felon, a terrorist – can open a gun factory in their garage, and the weapons they make will be undetectable,” he said in a press conference. Congressman Steve Israel echoed Schumer’s sentiments. In a press release he stated that “… when I started talking about the issue of plastic firearms months ago, I was told the idea of a plastic gun is science-fiction. Now that this technology appears to be upon us, we need to act now to extend the ban on plastic firearms.”
Almost every major news organisation in the world ran a story or two on the issue. The most inspired media stunt would probably have to be Simon Murphy and Russell Myers’s efforts for British newspaper The Mail on Sunday. Murphy and Russell printed the components for the Liberator and successfully smuggled them on board a Eurostar high-speed train service from London to Paris. They assembled the firearm (without firing pin or ammunition) and took fantastically overproduced photographs of themselves wielding the gun like secret agents. In the resulting article they called their endeavour a “security scandal”.
Around the end of May and start of June, enthusiasm noticeably ebbed. Attention drifted elsewhere and briefly returned to the topic only when a New York councillor proposed a bill that would make printing a gun within the city illegal for anyone other than a registered gunsmith. Having disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived, the media frenzy now appears to be over.
On May 19th, in the middle of the frenzy, a Californian YouTube user called Jeff Heeszel (who goes by the name ‘Taofledermaus’ on the website) uploaded a video of him and a friend test-firing a Mossberg 590 shotgun containing bullets created in a 3D printer. The projectiles were unstable and often hit their target side-on, which meant the force of impact was spread across a larger area; think of the difference between stepping on someone with a flat-bottomed shoe and stepping on them with the point of a stiletto.
Despite the inefficacy of the bullets, Heeszel was contacted over the next few days by several media outlets, including US News, CNN and Wired. “The Daily Mail sent me a PM and only wanted to know if the video was mine and if they could post the video on their site. I asked them to embed my video rather than use their own video player,” he says.
On May 22nd The Daily Mail posted a story with the headline ‘Is this the first 3D-printed BULLET? YouTube video shows range of homemade ammunition being fired.’ “They ended up using their own video player which allowed them to make money off my video,” Heeszel says. “Had they embedded my video, I would have earned some money off it too.”
The next day The Huffington Post’s Alexis Kleinman put up her own take: ‘3D-Printed Bullets Exist, And They’re Terrifyingly Easy To Make.’ “The third bullet did a little damage to a mannequin head. Why are these guys shooting at mannequin heads? That doesn’t send a great message,” she writes.
When reading these sorts of headlines and stories, many would potentially think that Heeszel’s friend had printed a complete round of ammunition. Alas, that is not the case. The word ‘bullet’ can refer to both the round (the thing you put in a gun) and the projectile (the bit that comes out of the gun). Most rounds contain a primer at the base, some form of propellant (usually gunpowder) in the middle, and a projectile at the tip. “The only 3D component [in the round] was the actual projectile … they were printed by a friend of mine in Tennessee and he mailed them to me to test out,” says Heeszel.
Whilst the claim that Heeszel used printed bullets is technically true, the fact that the term is also used to refer to whole rounds makes it seems incredibly misleading to use it instead of, say, ‘projectile’ or ‘slug’. Heeszel also says that much of the coverage he read contained gross errors. “US news and Wired’s articles were pretty accurate and I don’t recall seeing any major mistakes. Other articles I found jumbled up information or misquoted me,” he says. “[One] said I was a ‘libertarian who wanted a smaller government’ … that was totally made up, I don’t even talk about politics anywhere.”
“I certainly got an interesting insight on how media works and how some ‘journalists’ are just lazy and borrow information from other journalists and try to make it seem like they wrote it by putting different spins on it.”
Heeszel’s bullets did not get attention because they showcased anything particularly deadly or new; he has also utilized projectiles made out of silly putty, sausages, chocolate, and whole host of everyday items and materials. Heeszel’s 3D printed bullets only got attention because of the phrase “3D printed”. Attacking The Daily Mail and The Huffington Post for poor journalism may seem like a both trivial and futile endeavour, but their sensationalism can be compared with a more subtle failing that afflicted many more media outlets: hyping up printed weaponry in the first place when more effective homemade alternatives are already available.
As Richard slams the inner pipe back, the tip of the firing pin in the outer pipe makes contact with the primer in the shotgun round, which ignites the gunpowder and propels the bullet out of the chamber. It goes wide of the target and buries itself somewhere in the vegetation. Shortly afterwards, the outer pipe escapes Richard’s grip and rockets out of sight behind him due to Newton’s third law of physics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The gases leaving the pipe singe his now empty hand. Richard looks a little stunned by the incident, but then shows off his “roasted” finger and explains what he thought went wrong with his gun, which he made himself from two lengths of metal pipe, a galvanised cap, and a sharpened screw.
Richard is a seventeen-year-old do-it-yourself firearms enthusiast from Missouri. To be fair to him, he has made some far sturdier specimens; another pipe gun he made has a simple wooden stock, which mitigates the force of recoil over his entire shoulder. Rounds from this gun can penetrate plastic, wood and sheet metal. However, he seems to have a pretty lackadaisical attitude to safety and when talking to him I can’t help but feel as though I should be telling him off.
The weapons Richard makes have the potential to be deadly but suffer from long reload times, as each round must be individually inserted before firing. The most striking thing about them is how easy and cheap they are to produce. “You only need a basic knowledge of how guns function and a mechanical mindset in order to successfully put together a fully functioning firearm,” Richard says. “I usually spend around $30 to $35 on my 12 gauge slam fire guns.” For comparison, Scipione said that NSW police spent $35 on plastic for each Liberator they printed. “We made [the weapon] on a base entry level 3D printer … that printer cost us $1700,” he said.
So the obvious question beckons: if printed weapons are as menacing a prospect as police and legislators have made them out to be, why are homemade firearms not plunging the world into untold chaos and anarchy right this very moment? In a country like Australia the lack of ammunition could restrict any demand, as guns are for the most part useless without rounds to fire. Here it is illegal to possess or buy ammunition for any firearm for which you do not have a permit.
However, this is just not the case in America, where ammunition is considered such a staple it can be found at Wal-Mart. Legislation varies from state to state, but in Missouri, where Richard lives, handgun ammunition can be sold by licensed dealers to anyone over twenty-one years of age and ammunition for most other types of legal firearms (including shotgun ammunition) can be bought by anyone over eighteen. No license or permit of any kind is required.
Perhaps the issue at hand is the undetectable nature of plastic firearms? Even the simplest of Richard’s weapons would set off a metal detector or show up on an x-ray machine as two metal pipes. However, that’s all they would show up as: two metal pipes. They have no markers or serial numbers identifying them as a weapon, and nothing about them hints at their deadliness. If The Mail on Sunday reporters were to repeat their Eurostar smuggling experiment with two small metal pipes and a firing pin stashed somewhere in their luggage, they would probably be just as successful.
When I asked Richard why more people were not interested in his niche hobby, he thought it was a matter of ignorance. “I think that the practice of building homemade guns is not more widespread because the general public in the US have little to no knowledge about the subject,” he says. “People should not be afraid of how easy it is becoming to make guns at home … mass murders are very unlikely to happen when the gunman only has a single shot homemade gun.”
Professor Tim Senden, head of ANU’s Department of Applied Mathematics, argues that the ways in which 3D printing might improve society are somewhat drowned out by incessant media stories about the possible uses in creating weaponry. “I don’t really subscribe to the panic,” he says. “People are afraid of the new … I think the benefits, like any manufacturing technology, far exceed the hazards.”
When asked for a particular application the technology has or might have, Senden pointed out to me the role of 3D printing in creating personalized prosthetics for individual patients. Artificial faces, jaws, fingers and hands have all been created with the help of the technology, often for a much lower cost than more conventional methods would incur.
However, in the minds of many the technology will now be associated with printed guns and printed bullets instead of these positive applications. The media blew up the issue to such a great extent that they had to keep covering it, and you can’t blame them, really. This issue has all the ingredients for a sexy, eye-grabbing story. The fact that we can print guns is incredible. The fact that we can illegally download schematics for a gun which have been pulled from the manufacturer’s website by the US Department of State is incredible. The fact that there are a bunch of files sitting in hard drives across Australia mapping out a 3D object it would be illegal to own in real life is incredible. In practice, however, 3D printing cannot yet give us a firearm more complicated and more potent than what simple gun-making methods that have been available for hundreds of years can provide.
You could drop this paper right now and go make a firearm with a very minimal amount of research, a set of basic tools and some cheap materials. The only thing stopping you is some mixture of ignorance, laziness and disinterest. The panic of lawmakers and journalists over what is essentially a flashy new method to produce an old invention is completely unwarranted.
Printed firearms are just not that big a deal.