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Using 3-D Printers To Make Gun Parts Raises Alarms

This AR-15 rifle's lower receiver (in soft green color) was produced with a 3-D printer. The 3-D printing industry has criticized the use of the technology for gun part making. (Courtesy of Defense Distributed Dev Blog)

You may have heard about 3-D printing, a technological phenomenon that uses a robotic arm to build objects one layer at a time. As people get imaginative and create items in a one-stop-shop fashion, one more creation has been added to the printing line: gun parts.

On the West Side of Manhattan, behind large glass windows, a dozen 3-D printers build plastic toys and jewelry. Hilary Brosnihan, a manager at 3DEA, an events company that sponsored a print pop-up store, says things are moving rapidly.

"This [3-D printing] is coming down the line; it's coming down the line very quickly," Brosnihan says.

She also works as a toy manufacturer. The technology has boosted her business, but the idea of printing a gun horrifies her. She says most of her colleagues feel the same way.

"They are more of an open-source community that's about developing things that are useful. And in our terms, weapons aren't really useful," Brosnihan says. "Creating a way to adjust your sink faucet so you don't have issues with it — that's useful."

But a lot of Americans do think guns are useful.

Matt Griffin, who works in the tech industry, is writing a book about 3-D printing. When he visits colleagues outside New York or San Francisco, he says there's a definite cultural difference on guns.

He cites the Midwest as an example, where "amazing makers" idealize creating cars and guns, and don't see it as being separate from other design items seen on the Web.

It would be easy to conceive the idea that 3-D printers are churning out cheap handguns, but there's a kink in the process. If you were to print an entire gun out of plastic, it wouldn't work. The bullet should shatter the plastic.

You can print a gun in metal, but that kind of technology is not available to hobbyists now, and won't be anytime in the near future.

"The primary ways of doing this involve vacating a chamber and flooding it with gases," Griffin explains. "And you have to keep the gases mixed at this really careful percentage or it explodes. It doesn't fizzle out and stop working — it actually explodes."

But you can print a vital gun piece called the lower receiver — the central component that connects many of the other parts.

"The government considers the lower receiver the gun; that's the part with the serial number, that's the part that's regulated," says Pete Prodoehl, a 3-D print shop worker from Milwaukee.

That's how officials trace guns. But if someone wanted to build an unregulated gun at home, they could already do it with cheap, off-the-shelf parts. And people usually don't — for a good reason.

"It might fire once and it might not blow up in your face," Prodoehl says. "But, you know, building something that is reliable and repeatable and somewhat safe for the user is a little more tricky."

The design for printing the lower receiver was on Thingiverse.com, but its parent company, MakerBot, took it down after the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., claiming it violated its terms of use. (MakerBot declined an interview request.) Other 3-D printing companies declined to post the design on their websites, but it's still easy to find online.

Advocates of 3-D printing worry the technology is getting caught up in the national debate over guns. For many of Griffin's colleagues, the issue comes down to personal responsibility — which, in a way, mirrors the gun debate itself.

"I met some folks who were saying, 'I don't want anybody to tell me I can't make something,' " Griffin says. "So hearing somebody talk about, you know, maybe we need to talk about what people should be allowed to or able to make, they would get extremely upset."

At least one congressman is concerned about where 3-D printing is headed: Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., is pushing to renew a 1988 law that bans plastic weapons.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

You might have heard about 3D printing. It's where a robotic arm builds a plastic object one layer at a time. It's a pretty amazing technology that has now become controversial. A blogger in Wisconsin and a law student at the University of Texas were able to print part of a gun. The story was widely circulated, sparking fears that people could start printing out unregulated, untraceable guns in their own homes.

Reporter Eric Molinsky went to talk to people in the 3D printing community.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

ERIC MOLINSKY, BYLINE: On the Westside of Manhattan, behind large glass windows, a dozen 3D printers are building plastic toys and jewelry.

Hilary Brosnihan is a manager at 3DEA, an events company that sponsored this pop up store, which is funded by 3D printing companies. Their message to the public is...

HILARY BROSNIHAN: This is coming down the line and it's coming down the line very quickly.

MOLINSKY: Brosnihan also works as a toy manufacturer and 3D printing has been a boon for her business. The idea of printing a gun horrifies her. She thinks that most of her colleagues feel the same way.

BROSNIHAN: They are more of an open source community that's about developing things that are useful. And, in our terms, weapons aren't really useful; creating a way to adjust your sink faucet so you don't have issues with it, that's useful.

MOLINSKY: But a lot of Americans think guns are useful. Matt Griffin is writing a book about 3D printing and he works in the industry. When he visits colleagues outside New York or San Francisco, he definitely sees a cultural difference on guns.

MATT GRIFFIN: All up and down in the Midwest, there's some amazing makers where the idea of, you know, making cars and guns, and all the other sort of cool-for-guys kind of things, it was not separate from, you know, making the cool stuff that I recognize from maker fairs.

MOLINSKY: Now, it would be easy to get the idea that 3D printers are churning out cheap handguns. But that's not even close to being true. If you were to print an entire gun out of plastic, it wouldn't work. The bullet should shatter the plastic.

GRIFFIN: You can print a gun in metal but that kind of technology is not available to hobbyists now, or any time in the near future.

MOLINSKY: Again, Matt Griffin.

GRIFFIN: The primary ways of doing this involve vacating a chamber and flooding it with gases. And you have to keep the gases mixed at this, you know, really careful percentage or it explodes. It doesn't fizzle out and stop working it actually explodes.

MOLINSKY: You can print an important piece of the gun called the lower receiver. It's the central component that connects many of the other parts.

Pete Prodoehl works at a 3D printing shop in Milwaukee.

PETE PRODOEHL: The government considers the lower receiver the gun - like, that's the part with the serial number. That's the part that's regulated.

MOLINSKY: That's how they trace guns. But if someone wanted to build an unregulated gun at home, they could already do it with cheap, off-the-shelf parts. But they usually don't - for good reason.

PRODOEHL: You know, it might fire once and it might not, you know, blow up in your face.

(LAUGHTER)

PRODOEHL: But, you know, building something that is reliable and repeatable and somewhat safe for the user, is a little more tricky.

MOLINSKY: The design for printing the lower receiver was on the Web site Thingiverse. Its parent company, MakerBot, took it down after the Newtown massacre, claiming it violated their terms of use. MakerBot would not agree to an interview. Other 3D printing companies refused to put the design on their sites, but it's still easy to find online.

Advocates of 3D printing worry the technology is getting caught up in the national debate over guns. For many of Matt Griffin's colleagues, the issue comes down to personal responsibility - which in a way, mirrors the gun debate itself.

GRIFFIN: I met some folks who were saying: I don't want anybody to tell me I can't make something. So hearing somebody talk about, you know, maybe we need to talk about what people should be allowed to or able to make, they would get extremely upset.

MOLINSKY: But at least one congressman is concerned about where 3D printing is headed. New York Representative Steve Israel is pushing to renew a 1988 law that bans plastic weapons.

For NPR news, I'm Eric Molinsky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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