The 3-D-Printed Gun Is Retro, Not Futuristic

People have been building their own firearms for centuries.

Seized plastic handguns, which were created using 3-D printing technology, are displayed at a police station south of Tokyo in May 2014.  (Reuters)

You don’t need 3-D-printing technology to make your own gun.

Individuals have been fashioning homemade firearms for as long as guns have existed. Zip guns, crude but functional weapons often made from taped-together pieces of pipe and rubber bands, were particularly popular in the 1940s and 1950s. The AK-47, one of the most widely used assault rifles on the planet, has a reputation for being a cinch to make and practically impossible to break.

Even so, advances in 3-D printing, in which thin layers of (usually) plastic are printed atop one another to form an object, bring with them a tangle of complex questions about the intersection of gun rights, maker culture, and government oversight.

For instance, it’s not illegal to print your own gun for personal use, but there are rules about selling homemade guns, and restrictions on what materials can be used when you make them. All-plastic guns, undetectable by weapon-screening scanners, are prohibited. One of the more alarming prospects of a world in which 3-D printing might be widely used for home gun-making is not just that firearms might be built to slip through metal detectors, but that the guns would’t be traceable at all. There would be no official serial numbers, no records of ownership, nothing.

The home-printing of guns is not hypothetical. It is already happening, and the Department of Homeland Security said, in a memo obtained by Fox News in 2013, that limiting access to such weapons may be “impossible.” There’s an active subculture of gun enthusiasts who are designing, building, and sharing 3-D-printable gun plans online. They’ve made weapons capable of firing hundreds of rounds and printed custom bullets specially created for 3-D-printed guns. In some countries, where civilian gun possession is banned or tightly regulated, 3-D printing could represent a major loophole.

Printing technologies are getting more sophisticated and cheaper, too, meaning 3-D printing is more reliable and accessible to more people than ever. But the technology that enables print-your-own weapons isn’t what makes this moment in gun history so strange. The most curious thing about the gun-printing movement is the reversal it represents in the larger context of industrialization.

“The historical sweep—not only in the realm of guns, but in the process of industrialization itself—has largely been in the opposite direction,” said Robert Spitzer, the chair of the political-science department at SUNY Cortland. “That is, from individuals making their own products to having such products mass produced with interchangeable parts.”

Before guns and ammunition were mass produced in factories, people mixed their own saltpeter for gunpowder and crafted one-off replacement parts for damaged firearms. Once gun manufacturers began making guns that were both better quality and more affordable than the ones people could make themselves, everything changed. “The recent development of 3-D printers that can allow individuals to, in effect, ‘print’ their own firearms reverses the historical process,” Spitzer said. “Although you still have to buy the plastic raw material that is used to then form the items to be made, and you have to buy the 3-D printer that makes it.”

This shift says more about tech culture than it does about actual technology. Homemade 3-D-printed guns may be a way for criminals to make their own untraceable, undetectable weapons; but such guns are also a manifestation of a culture that’s obsessed with ultra-niche personalization and customization—an obsession that’s cultivated, too, by Internet culture.

“I do not recall any similar example where this has occurred in the past,” Spitzer told me. “It seems to be an artifact of the computer revolution that gives individuals a kind of power, thanks to technology, that has not formerly been available to the individual.”

Indeed, individualism and the waning relevance of gatekeepers are hallmark facets of web culture. They’re also foundational elements of the American gun ethos. So the appeal of a 3-D-printed gun, to those who find the idea appealing, probably has as much to do with the roots of gun culture as it has to do with the promise of new printing technology.

Guns, after all, can profoundly shift the balance of power between the individual wielding one and anyone else in proximity. Or, in the words of Yoshitomo Imura, a man arrested in Japan for allegedly 3-D printing five guns in 2014: “A gun makes power equal!!”

It isn’t just guns: the central offering of many technologies is a leveling effect, based on the idea that a machine might correct asymmetries. Guns promise to make the weak powerful; 3-D printers promise to make guns out of—well, not quite thin air, but slices of hot plastic in the privacy of your own home. But while a gun is ultimately designed to do one thing, 3-D printers are designed to build almost anything. That includes gun-safety technology, incidentally. Timmy Oh, the co-founder of Dual:Lock, a fingerprint-authentication system for firearms, says he has used 3-D printing for his company’s prototypes.

“Personally, as an engineer, I just don’t think the technology is completely there for making guns,” he told me. Many people agree with him. All-plastic weapons aren’t very good at withstanding the heat and pressure that comes from firing a gun. Often, if a 3-D-printed gun works at all, it doesn’t work for long.

But that won’t always be the case.

“Such a change, if the technology continues to improve, could be profound—if individuals can eventually produce firearms comparable in quality and durability to what factories produce,” Spitzer told me. We know something of what such a profound shift can look like. The mass manufacture and wide dissemination of firearms in the United States is already a cultural, social, and political phenomenon. There’s a parallel in all this to the use of key technologies in the agricultural and industrial revolutions: widespread gun ownership began with people using technology to reorder their relationship with nature; but led to them ultimately reconfiguring their relationships with other humans.

To build a homemade firearm, you don’t need cheap, affordable 3-D-printing technology, or an Internet subculture devoted to sharing gun designs—but access to both certainly created the potential to upend the concept of modern gunmaking within a familiar framework.

Spitzer, for his part, has already made his own gun. Well, a piece of one, anyway. He spent an afternoon building a portion of an AR-15 called the lower receiver. He details the experience, which he said was “demystifying,” in his latest book, Guns Across America. “The act of deconstructing something that is complex, inscrutable, or menacing has the effect of pushing aside its cumulative effect or consequences,” he wrote.

“The AR-15 is like Legos for grownups,” Gary Lenk, a West Hartford detective who has traced the rise of the AR-15, told the Hartford Courant in 2013, “because you can adapt them for different calibers, different barrel stocks, with just a few simple tools.” Or, in at least one case, quite literally like Legos. Michael Guslick, a gunmaker who blogs about his experience making 3-D-printed guns, built a lower receiver for an AR-15 using the same kind of plastic used in actual Legos, he told The New York Times.

Which raises a question about the psychological effect of building a gun with a newfangled printer, using materials commonly associated with brightly colored toy bricks. Is the weapon apt to seem more real to the person who made it, then, or less so?

“It is not only unsurprising but logical that weapons enthusiasts ... have both greater technical knowledge (and familiarity) and a lessened sense of mystery,” Spitzer wrote in his book. “That is both the value and the danger of intimate acquaintance with guns: demystification is of value, but the loss of appreciation of firearms’ destructive capabilities is indeed a danger.”

Building a homemade firearm, as an exercise, may be a way to foster knowledge and answer mechanical uncertainty. But bringing any new weapon into existence, like Chekhov’s gun, is its own type of open-ended question.

This article is part of our With Great Power project, which is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.