You Can Now 3-D Print Your Own Working Gun, But You Probably Shouldn't

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 6 2013 4:48 PM

You Can Now 3-D Print Your Own Working Gun, But You Probably Shouldn't

Cody Wilson fires his 3-D printed gun, dubbed "Liberator."
Cody Wilson fires his 3-D printed gun, dubbed "Liberator."

Screenshot / YouTube

On Saturday, University of Texas law student Cody Wilson successfully fired what has been billed as the world’s first fully 3-D printed gun. Forbes’ Andy Greenberg, who was there, has the definitive story on the feat.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

The weapon, which Wilson calls the “Liberator,” is being both hailed and denounced as a major blow to gun control. Wilson’s nonprofit, Defense Distributed, has already put the design plans for the gun online for anyone to download. That means people could start printing out working firearms in their living rooms today. Of even greater concern to lawmakers, criminals could theoretically thwart security measures by carrying the all-plastic guns into secure buildings without setting off metal detectors.

In reality, though, we aren’t quite there yet. For one thing, this fully 3-D printed gun isn’t fully fully 3-D printed, Wilson explained to me in a phone interview. Because federal law bans firearms that aren’t detectable by metal detectors, Wilson added a six-ounce, non-functional metal component to his version. Of course, anyone 3-D printing the gun at home could skip that step. But again, that would be against the law. And there’s one other part that actually can’t yet be 3-D printed: the firing pin. “We tried a lot of plastic pins,” Wilson said. “They were a little too soft,” so they deformed when they hit the primer.

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To Wilson, that’s no problem. He told me his goal was never to build a weapon undetectable by security devices. “That it’s made out of plastic is just an accident to me,” Wilson said. “If there was a way to extrude metal (with a home 3-D printer), that would be just as exciting to me.” Besides, he noted, modern airport-security checkpoints don’t rely on metal detectors but on x-ray scanners that would reveal the shape of a plastic gun just as easily as a traditional pistol.

One other factor working against any criminal who would use a “Liberator” as a weapon: It doesn’t work very well. As TechCrunch’s John Biggs writes in a useful explainer, “This is more of a zip gun than a pistol,” in that it is a crude and wildly unreliable single-shot firearm as opposed to something that can fire with accuracy again and again without exploding in your face.

Oh, and the type of printer that Wilson used can run you upwards of $10,000 on eBay. You could try it on a much cheaper Makerbot, but at your own (significant) risk.

In short, we are now one step closer to a world in which people can choose between buying a gun at the store and printing one in their living room. And Wilson and others are working hard to bring that about, including through Defense Distributed's new search engine, Defcad.org. But several more steps remain before it’s a viable option. Until then, there’s a decent chance that the first person who tries to kill someone with a 3-D printed gun will end up as an unintended casualty himself.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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