Published on Dec 16, 2012
Today's News Could 3D printers make a gun 2012 More This Week
In the very near future, someone will be killed with a gun not bought from a dealer or a dodgy bloke in a pub, but printed at home in metal and plastic with a 3D printer.
The tools necessary to replicate a deadly weapon will soon be affordable to someone toiling away at home. The cost of 3D printers has dropped substantially: models are available for as little as £400.
Extremely polished designs such as the MakerBot Replicator 2 and Form Labs Form1 reveal how close the technology is to becoming a mainstream consumer proposition.
For anyone who wants to use their printer to make weapons, the web is a treasure trove. The CAD files needed to build popular hand guns are readily available and efforts to make a 3D printed gun have begun.
Earlier this year, amateur gunsmith Michael Guslick, who goes by the name of HaveBlue, created the lower receiver -- part of the housing that hold a firearm's operating parts -- for an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle using a 3D printer.
He combined it with off-the-shelf parts to create a .22 calibre pistol and fired 200 rounds to prove that the 3D printed component was up to the task.
What's especially interesting about Guslick's DIY project is that, in the US, the lower receiver is the legally controlled part of a firearm and must show a serial number.
Creating a replica of that component from scratch using a 3D printer suddenly makes it a whole lot easier for people without gun licences to build a high-quality, unregulated weapon.
Zip guns -- improvised weapons made from commonly available parts -- have always been an option.
In the Fifties, street gangs in New York put together pistols with tubing from coffee percolators, wood handles and elastic bands to power the firing pin.
The single-shot weapons were liable to explode on firing and therefore more dangerous for the shooter than the target.
It's likely that the first fully printed 3D gun will be similarly unreliable, owing to the limitations of the material. But that has not stopped Defense Distributed, a group of libertarian gun lovers who have raised over $20,000 to fund their WikiWeapon project.
The plan is to offer designs for two weapons -- one "training gun" with no moving parts and an electrical solenoid for its firing action, and one with fully moving parts. The group admits that, to begin with, a plastic firearm is likely to be single use.
Cody Wilson, the law student at the University of Texas leading the group, says: "In the future, no one is going to be able to decide who has a gun but you.
This is a project that intends to help subvert older hierarchies and these older modes of thinking." However, WikiWeapon has already suffered two big setbacks.
First, its fundraising efforts were shut down by crowdfunding site IndieGoGo. Then the 3D printer it had leased was repossessed by the manufacturer, Statasys.
The company said it took back the machine when it became aware of Wilson's plans.
Also, when someone does get round to printing a gun, they'll find themselves up against a forward-thinking law. In 1988, following concerns about the Glock 17, which uses a polymer frame, Congress passed the Undetectable Firearms Act, which mandated that all guns sold in the United States must contain at least 3.7 ounces of steel.
But technical problems the law have not stop mavericks in the past. The production of the 3D printed guns could take place abroad.
The allure of weapons that are incredibly cheap to make and practically disposable means the production of such a gun is a question of when and not if.
Just imagine what John Moses Browning, who designed his first firearm at 13, or Mikhail Kalashnikov, the father of the AK-47, could have made with this technology.
There is no shortage of fiendishly inventive minds in the world and many of them are not on our side. We should start thinking now about ways to ensure garages aren't turned into armouries.
Colt proudly displays a slogan on its website: "Abe Lincoln may have freed all men but Sam Colt made them equal." If we're not careful, 3D printers could shift that balance again.