Better 3D-Printed Guns Will Not Wait for Congress — or the NRA

With each day that passes, Congress' efforts to curb automatic weapons and high capacity magazines becomes more irrelevant — and maybe not so much because of politics as technology.

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With each day that passes, Congress' efforts to curb automatic weapons and high capacity magazines becomes more irrelevant — and maybe not so much because of politics as technology.

In December, shortly after the Newtown shooting, attention turned to Defense Distributed, a libertarian group aiming to provide blueprints for firearms that could be created with 3D printers in the comfort of one's own home. The first reviews were poor; a video posted by the group suggested that its plastic-printed lower receiver for an AR-15 rifle could only fire a half dozen bullets before crumbling.

That was in December. And when President Obama in his State of the Union speech last month said 3D printing had the power to "revolutionize" manufacturing, he probably didn't mean like this. Within weeks, Defense Distributed released designs for a high-capacity magazine, derisively named the "Cuomo" in honor of gun control legislation championed by New York's governor. And yesterday, an update to the lower receiver:

After hundreds of rounds, it remains intact.

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin consideration of a number of measures aimed at limiting access to firearms. Among them, according to multiple reports: universal background checks for gun purchases, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and even that impossible new ban on assault weapons. On the House side, Rep. Steve Israel called for a ban on 3D-printed guns, to which Defense Distributed replied, "Good luck." (This is a slight, family-friendly edit of the group's original response.)

The response is a valid one. The newest video from Defense Distributed demonstrates its advantages over Congressional action: evolution and speed. It can iterate weapons designs faster than Congress can deem them illegal. Defense Distributed (or other groups) can create weapons that look nothing like the AR-15 designs it's currently mimicking, possibly changing our understanding of what a gun is.

That, in effect, is how gun manufacturers worked around the recently expired assault weapons ban: tweaking the weapons to avoid the rules. As the New York Times reported:

Congress passed a 10-year ban on “assault weapons,” which legislators defined as semiautomatic rifles that included two or more specific features, like pistol-type handle grips and metal mounts, called bayonet lugs, to which bayonets could be attached. People who already owned such rifles were allowed to keep them.

The ban made the rifles only more desirable for some consumers. To meet the demand, gun makers removed prohibited features, like bayonet lugs, and marketed them as legal alternatives. … After the ban’s expiration, gun makers simply restored the once-prohibited features.

When tiny physical adjustments turn an illegal gun into a legal one, a firm that can quickly offer replacement parts exists somewhere beyond the reach of the law.

Ironically, there may only be one group motivated and powerful enough to keep the advent of 3D-printed guns in check: the gun industry itself. As Adam Penenberg noted at PandoDaily last month:

According to the Violence Policy Center, the gun industry has plowed $40 million into NRA coffers since 2005. The organization’s most generous donors include MidwayUSA, Beretta USA Corp., Springfield Armory, Pierce Bullet Seal Target Systems, all of which donated in excess of $1 million, while another gun maker, Benelli USA Corp., gave more than $500,000.

So what happens when 3D printing becomes commonplace and it’s possible for anyone to print out ammunition and parts or even a whole gun in the comfort of his own home? As with the VCR and Napster, I suspect the gun industry will do everything in its power to prevent this. It’s a direct threat to these companies’ bottom lines.

Which means the political power of the NRA swinging into action and the economic power of gun manufacturers coming to bear. The Internet didn't only threaten traditional, government-sponsored mail delivery, after all — it took down music stores and booksellers and many more to come.

Congress isn't only constrained by politics on gun control. It's also trying to navigate between homes with tens of thousands of high-capacity magazines and assault-type weapons and a future in which datafiles can become firearms in the space of an hour. The political question may turn out to be the easy one.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.