When Cody Wilson first put blueprints online in 2013 containing instructions on how to 3D-print a plastic, untraceable firearm, gun enthusiasts responded by quickly downloading the how-to file over 100,000 times.
It didn’t take long before eyebrows were raised in the State Department, which then ordered Wilson to cease the distribution under the condition that he was violating federal export laws, as downloaded instructions began circulating outside of the United States. Wilson would have faced fines and jail time if he didn’t comply.
Wilson, and his Texas-based company, Defense Distributed, have been fighting the State Department ever since, and after a five-year lawsuit, the company won the right to upload instructions once again after a settlement by the Trump administration ruled in favor of the self-described “crypto-anarchist.”
Reversing a stance taken by the Obama administration, the ruling means that gun-manufacturing instructions can be downloaded online by users who can then put the printing techniques to practice in the comfort of their own homes.
The surprising decision sent an inevitable shockwave through the ever-increasing chasm between parties in favor of and against additional measures of gun regulation.
Gun safety advocates and law enforcement officials fear that an unserialized firearm that doesn’t require background checks and won’t set off metal detectors is the quintessential weapon of choice for criminals and terrorists. In response to the ruling, multiple gun control groups filed an appeal to try and halt the circulation of Wilson’s blueprints.
“There is a market for these guns and it’s not just among enthusiasts and hobbyists,” said Nick Suplina, managing director for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety, one of the three groups that filed the appeal. “There’s a real desire and profit motive in the criminal underworld as well.”
Gun industry experts, however, argue that the 3D-print process doesn’t actually enhance a criminal’s ability to attain or assemble a firearm any more effectively than current illegal methods. The exorbitant cost of the printer would also discourage most criminals from even attempting to manufacture a gun that experts say is incredibly unreliable.
The Marine Corps is looking to additive manufacturing as a possible method to build spare parts rapidly in the field, which could reduce the heavy burden of a long logistics tail out to the tactical edge.
“It costs thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to acquire a printer and the files and the knowhow to do this," said Larry Keane, executive director of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "They don’t work worth a damn. Criminals can obviously go out and steal guns or even manufacture...If you’re a gang banger in L.A., are you going to go out and spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy a printer to print a gun that doesn’t work very well or are you just going to steal one?”
Printed firearms are generally inaccurate and fall apart after firing only a few rounds, experts say. They also have to be manually loaded, holding only one or two rounds at a time, since they are incapable of holding magazines.
When the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tested a gun made using Wilson’s blueprints, the firearm broke apart after firing only one round.
Despite the unreliability of the handgun, Defense Distributed plans to offer additional instructions on printing semi-automatic rifles, but experts expect those will feature the same type of functional flaws.
“It’s not very practical,” said Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America. “Let’s be serious. First of all, you’re going to plunk out thousands of dollars just for the printers. This is a very expensive route to go just to get a piece of plastic that will only last a round.”
Wilson vowed on Twitter to begin releasing instructions on Aug. 1. Gun control groups, meanwhile, continue to race against the clock to try and prevent the release.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.