Regulating personal 3D printing is about as intelligent and feasible as regulating power tools or sharp objects.
Last week, Japanese Yoshitomo Imura became the first person to be sent to prison for 3D printing firearms. Well, sort of. His prison sentence, which is two years long, was likely lengthened because he uploaded a video of himself firing his 3D printed gun, where he “flaunted his skills and knowledge,” according to the judge’s ruling.
Yes, this 3D printed gun is the first able to fire six .38 caliber bullets, five more than the printed gun that influenced Yoshitomo’s creation. But should it be regulated?
What 3D gun printers are currently capable of
The kind of “gun” you can 3D print is basically a 1950’s-style zip gun, an improvised firearm with which the Sharks and the Jets would have rumbled if West Side Story was more realistic. It’s a step beyond percolator tubing taped to a piece of 2×4, with a rubber band driving a firing pin made out of a nail. But only a step.
You can see this for yourself by watching Yoshitomo’s video:
If you were seriously hard up for a poor quality projectile weapon, you could download the blueprints from the site of Cody Wilson – the pioneer of 3D printed firearms – print and assemble, and hope for the best. Of course, a plastic firing chamber and barrel are not going to take much pressure, so a few rounds of .22 or .38 are about all you’re going to get out of it. Frankly, you’d be better off taking a handheld drill to a block of wood to make your “gun.”
It would cost over $500K to make a 3D printed metal gun from scratch
But what about those metal sintering 3D printers? Can’t you make a functional weapon with them? Sure. But when I asked for a price quote for a 3D printed metal gun from EOS, a direct metal laser sintering company, the number was pretty steep, at $600K per printer. One would also need an annealing furnace, and it would take you a long time to produce one. So, yes, it’s possible to 3D print a gun out of metal.
On the other hand, it’s also possible to CNC mill a gun out of metal, which is much cheaper and faster. You’ll notice that Cody Wilson is now selling low-end CNC mills to make lower receivers for AR-15 rifles from pre-machined blocks of metal. For good reason: If you need to make standard parts, designed around CNC milling and turning, as gun parts are, you’re better off with a home CNC mill and router than a 3D printer.
In fact, the parts don’t even have to be CNC-machined. A manual home lathe and mill will do the job equally well, in the hands of a basically-skilled machinist using widely available blueprints. Or you can just make guns by hand, with hand tools and a drill press. Not hinky zip guns, or AR-15 lowers either, but full-on AK-47s. The necessary tools are present in any modestly-well equipped home workshop, and they’re about as regulated (and regulatable) as hammers and screwdrivers.
So, what’s the story here?
Basically, opportunistic American libertarians are using a new technology to make gun control politicians and their constituents hysterical, which is about as challenging as getting a labrador retriever to eat spam. 3D printing aficionados are taking advantage of the hysteria to promote their pet technology. A Japanese nerd working in an educational shop got carried away and not only printed a “gun,” but showed it off to the whole world on YouTube. After viewing the video, the Japanese justice system (not known for its fuzzy and gentle demeanor) used him as a convenient example of why you shouldn’t flaunt illegal activity in Japan.
The truth is that 3D printing is not a mature technology. It is very valuable in a limited number of applications, with small parts, high variance between parts and high costs. Making firearms is not one of those applications.
Because of the political agendas of the gun rights advocates and the anti-gun lobby, and the hype-driven nature of tech media, 3D printing has been uncomfortably shoehorned into the debate, where it now sits awkwardly.
Regulating personal 3D printing is about as intelligent and feasible as regulating power tools or sharp objects. The only thing dumber, however, is documenting yourself violating the law and putting the documentation online. I hope it gets Imura dates when he gets out, at least.
The views expressed are of the author.
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Featured Image Credit: YouTube