As digital technology continues to transform the way objects are manufactured, it's becoming more possible to produce an entire firearm at home. Amateur gunsmiths are now sharing the digital blueprints for making key parts of a gun online on a 3-D printer and one member of Congress has expressed concern about the implications of 3-D printed guns at airports and other public spaces.
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Moving on, now, in tech news to a story that touches on some urgent policy questions. As lawmakers debate access to guns, some people are trying to make their own using 3-D printers. And they're learning how from information they find on the Internet. Reporter Jon Kalish explains how 3-D printers complicate the conversation about guns.
JON KALISH, BYLINE: The rifle used in the Newtown school shootings was a version of an AR-15. It's the civilian counterpart of the military's M16, and is one of the most popular firearms in America. This semiautomatic weapon can fire individual rounds as fast as you can squeeze the trigger.
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KALISH: This is from a video posted online by an amateur gunsmith in New Hampshire.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Beauty.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes, it appears to be functioning.
KALISH: What you just heard is no ordinary AR-15. One of its key parts is plastic and was made on a 3-D printer. Picture an inkjet printer that sprays hot plastic onto a platform, instead of ink onto a page. The machine can make a variety of three-dimensional objects, everything from a lens cap to an iPhone case - and even a key part of a firearm, something called a lower receiver.
MICHAEL GUSLICK: The lower receiver is really the core of the firearm.
KALISH: Michael Guslick is a hobbyist gunsmith and a serious computer geek.
GUSLICK: It is the chassis onto which all of the other major components are bolted onto. The lower receiver is by itself considered a firearm, under the terms of the 1968 Gun Control Act.
KALISH: That's important - this one part is considered the gun. Making it on a 3-D printer isn't simple. You need to be something of a gunsmith and a computer geek, which is a rare combination of skills. But people with those skills have made plastic lower receivers for real guns that fire real bullets. Sometimes they fail, but it can be done with as little as $20 worth of raw plastic on a machine that costs $1,000. Again, Michael Guslick.
GUSLICK: There are probably a good half-dozen people that I'm aware of, that have 3-D printed their own AR-15 lower receivers - and I'm sure many others who have done so quietly and haven't said anything about it.
KALISH: Guslick shared his design for a plastic lower receiver on the Internet. One man who got the design is Cody Wilson, a 25-year-old law student in Texas. The first plastic receiver Wilson printed broke after six shots, but he and his team improved the design. Wilson is not afraid to say that his ultimate goal is to design a firearm that can be produced almost entirely on a 3-D printer.
CODY WILSON: We're like a little design firm now, prototyping other people's designs, our own designs, and releasing the files as free software.
KALISH: Anyone can download these 3-D gun designs. But after the Newtown school shooting, some file-sharing websites took down the design files for lower receivers. But once information is on the Internet, it's almost impossible to contain. Wilson's group started a new site to give away files for gun parts. He appeared recently on Glenn Beck's show, and described his blueprint for a plastic gun magazine capable of holding 30 bullets.
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WILSON: Now, it's been downloaded over 50,000 times. You know, the Internet has it. This is no longer ban-able, in some traditional sense. That's a real political act - giving you a magazine, telling you that that will never be taken away. That's radical equality. That's what I believe in.
KALISH: Cody Wilson sees geeks like him as defenders of civil liberties, safeguarding Second Amendment rights with the Internet and a 3-D printer, which could complicate the debate over gun control. Felons and mentally unstable individuals could get around background checks, and gain easy access to firearms if they can make them at home. And there are other scenarios.
REP. STEVE ISRAEL: We have a law on the books that currently says that you cannot put on an airplane a component for a firearm, or a firearm, that can't be detected by the metal detector.
KALISH: That's Rep. Steve Israel of New York. He wants to renew that law. He worries that terrorists, for example, could use 3-D printers to make a weapon that they could sneak aboard a plane.
ISRAEL: Before too long, we will have the technology through a - inexpensive, 3-D printer to construct a plastic firearm in its entirety.
KALISH: A lot of design work and testing still needs to be done before an entire gun could be made at home on a 3-D printer. But that's exactly what Cody Wilson is trying to do. If he succeeds, he might end up subverting gun regulations. But he's a subversive who works within the law. Wilson recently applied to the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco for a federal license to manufacture firearms. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The name of the federal agency is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.]
For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.