From the CEO

From the CEO

Casey McCarty

Nov 7th, 2018

Panic at the 3D printer--Misplaced anxiety about 3D printed guns in the face of cheap and legal DIY kits

Over the past several months, policy makers have renewed interest in the 3D printed firearms debate with developments in federal court cases involving Defense Distributed, the Austin-based firm founded by the highly controversial Cody Wilson, and Defcad, the spinoff host of a repository of digital plans for 3D printable firearms.


Defense Distributed appears in federal cases spanning two administrations, starting in 2013, when the State Department first blocked the release of digital plans for firearms using case law from the International Trade in Arms Regulations. A countersuit by Wilson argued that preventing him from publishing the content violated his First Amendment rights.

Earlier this year, the State Department settled, allowing Defense Distributed to release the plans in August, though a subsequent wave of 19 state attorneys general filed for courts to intervene, temporarily blocking the release when a US District Judge issued a restraining order, and then an injunction to allow states time to scramble into legal battle.

Undeterred, Wilson’s company shifted from the free posting of plans to the paid selling of the plans to domestic buyers, circumventing the specific language in the laws previously used to prohibit publication, which focused on the plans being free, and available to international recipients.

Cody Wilson arrested for soliciting sex with a minor, source: Click2Houston
Cody Wilson's arrest in Taiwan Source: ABC10


The plot thickened as Cody Wilson was arrested in Taiwan in September following charges alleging he paid $500 to have sex with a minor. In case it wasn’t already clear that the self-proclaimed “crypto-anarchist” had a dubious moral compass, Wilson endeared himself to hate groups in 2017 for spinning up a site aptly named Hatreon to home neo-Nazi crowdfunding campaigns recently kicked off mainstream sites like Patreon and GoFundMe and payment processors like PayPal and Apple Pay. Wilson unceremoniously resigned from Defense Distributed.

Loss of their ideological frontman and counterculture-whisperer aside, Defense Distributed was quick to proclaim that sales of its primary product--a sub-$2K CNC milling machine called Ghost Gunner--have marched forward undeterred, perhaps even inspired by the legal trappings. The flagship product, which carves aluminum firearms components, launched in 2014 and the company claims to have sold 6,000 units with another 1,500 ordered, yet to ship.

Elsewhere, active participants in DIY gun communities were unaroused by Wilson being sidelined--noting that the movement has gone far beyond the resources made available by Wilson. Iterations of plans and discussion of technique have been shared for years on platforms like GrabCAD and FossCad, and even YouTube. Before the more recent waves of controversy, hosting plans for 3D printed guns were available on far more mainstream sites like MakerBot’s Thingiverse, before terms of use were updated to prohibit this activity.


The most cited law applicable in the case of 3D printed guns is the Undetectable Firearms Act (1988, last renewed in 2013) which makes it illegal to “manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer, or receive any firearm that is not as detectable by walk-through metal detection as a security exemplar containing 3.7 oz (105 g) of steel, or any firearm with major components that do not generate an accurate image before standard airport imaging technology.”  

Simply stated, a firearm must contain a minimum amount of metal such that it can be detected by common X-ray security systems.

Earlier this year, legislation was introduced to the Senate, the Untraceable Firearms Act (requiring every firearm to have a serial number and the main component to be made of metal) and the 3D Printed Gun Safety Act (prohibiting publication of a 3D printable file online that can be used to manufacture a firearm), though neither of these bills have progressed.

Of course, proponents of publishing plans online cite First Amendment protection of sharing content presented without overt incitement to engage in illegal activity, a stance supported by substantive case law since Brandenburg v Ohio (1969).  This case law has upheld the legality of plenty of tommes describing how to craft dangerous weapons, such as the infamous 1970’s The Anarchist Cookbook. The State Department itself cited its concern that the case against Wilson would ultimately fail First Amendment arguments if escalated in a statement describing the rationale for settling with Wilson.


As with many technological advancements, there seems to be a contingent of activists that wildly extrapolate a worst-case scenario of the new tech ushering in the ruination of society.  As Makers, we are certainly suspicious of this gut-reaction to tech advancements. The over-hyped threats of children 3D printing untraceable and undetectable guns on their local libraries cheap 3D printer is still very much a dystopian fantasy.

While 3D printers are steadfastly improving in reliability, quality, and affordability, people familiar with the type of 3D printing technology readily available to consumers describe the minimal likelihood that an average consumer could produce a functional 3D-printed firearm on common desktop printers.  Even law enforcement entities have noted that producers are far more likely to injure themselves in the attempt than successfully commit a crime with a 3D printed weapon, and to date, no violent crimes with 3D printed weapons have been reported.

That’s certainly not to say that homemade firearms are not a substantive law enforcement problem--on the contrary--but the methods for creating a homemade untraceable firearm that circumvents legal controls such as background checks and waiting periods are ubiquitous, cheap, overwhelmingly legal, and don’t involve 3D printing at all.

The domestic-murder-turned-school-shooting that left five dead and many injured in rural northern California in November, 2017 highlighted the role of homemade guns in circumventing law enforcement when Kevin Neal was found to have used two “ghost” semi-automatic rifles in the mass killing despite being legally barred from purchasing guns and having been previously court-ordered to surrender firearms.

Though this higher-profile case renewed interest in the legal process of fabricating homemade guns from unfinished receiver kits, law enforcement officials report a steadfast increase in unserialized and unregistered guns in recent years.  Just two vendors in California and Florida reported selling over 75,000 kits in 2014 alone, with the Las Angeles BATF field office estimating 10% of firearms recovered in Mexico were homemade that year.



Stealth Arms, AR-15, 80 Lower Receiver Forged Kit, Source:
Stealth Arms, AR-15, 80 Lower Receiver Forged Kit



The receiver of a firearm is the mechanical “guts” that makes a gun a gun according to physics (the part that projects the bullet) and according to the law.  Receivers are serial stamped and their sale and transmission requires adherence to Federal Firearms Licensee requirements including background check laws.

But also according to law, when that receiver is only 80% or less complete, it’s not a gun, and thus not beholden to gun regulations.  Enter a prolific industry supplying gun kits that include all requisite parts to assemble a gun with an “80% lower” receiver that doesn’t quite count yet as a gun.  You can get these kits from a variety of vendors shipped to your door, perfectly legal, as swiftly as any mundane online order, without any background checks, registrations, or waiting periods.

That last 20% to turn the “receiver blank” into a fully functional firearm is up to you, 6-12 hours or a fumbly weekend if you have zero experience, and a wealth of resources, instructional videos, jigs, and templates to make the process easy and beginner-friendly.  

Using conventional home shop tools that hardly elicit the fear or romanticism of 3D printers, like a drill press and vise, a router, some bits, punches, and a fancy wrench, individuals are legally free to complete the last 20% of a firearm at home.  

From a popular online vendor, the entire setup for homemade AR-15s will be an initial investment of about $1000, and the resources, checklists, and one-stop shop I found shopping for my hypothetical DIY toolkit was hardly intimidating beyond my initial trepidation of being added to a government watch list. Only about half of that is in the actual gun pieces--the rest is reusable tools ready to continue to churn out ARs.  For comparison, the going price of an AR-15 on the legal market is about $400-700 for average basic models.

Sending utter Maker rookies through the process of actually making a gun from homemade methods has been widely experimented by tech journalists, who chronicle moments of frustration and pouring over videos online, before ultimately creating a live-fireable firearm from the drill press and CNC methods.  Receiving particularly high marks for ease and time-saving, was the aforementioned Ghost Gunner CNC mill. The success of YouTube demos showing apparent 3D printed guns capable of firing hundreds of rounds remained elusive, however, to experimenters, who failed after numerous attempts with various published plans to replicate a functional weapon on consumer-grade desktop 3D printers costing less than $5,000.


As many Makerspaces are connected to entities such as schools, universities, and libraries, policy makers have called for briefs from Makerspace leaders to attest to the feasibility of creating 3D printed guns on publicly funded equipment.  Makerspace leadership has resoundingly offered that the likelihood of successful attempts would be de minimis--the technical capacity for the often inexpensive beginner model printers typically available simply aren’t capable of this task, let alone the ample opportunity for staff intervention required to facilitate prints, and the sheer amount of print time required, increasing the probability of discoverability.

The nonprofit organization Nation of Makers, which provides a platform for Makerspaces to share resources and communicate amongst each other, notes increased discussion forum activity and workgroups, as many Makerspaces formally implement policies to prevent use of their equipment for this purpose.

Our own policy is as follows:

The use of Idea Foundry tools or technology, including computer workstations, for the creation, manufacture, prototyping, or fabrication of firearms, explosive devices, or other weapons or commonly weaponizable devices is strictly prohibited and will result in immediate revocation of membership and referral to law enforcement agencies. Use of our social media group or any Idea Foundry-hosted peer-communication platforms to transmit illegal content regarding plans for the creation or illegal use of weaponry, including but not limited to firearms, is prohibited.

Makers doubtless have mixed feelings about the complex issues surrounding the 3D printed gun and publishing of plans debate-- our culture tends to encourage the open-source transmission of information and vehemently support First Amendment protections to do so.  Candidly, there is not an insignificant overlap in the Venn diagram of hardcore DIY enthusiasts and libertarian-sympathetic individuals inherently suspicious of government regulation.

Makerspaces, however, hold both a moral obligation to--and pragmatic liabilities for failing to--proactively address legal-ethical issues surrounding what individuals ought to be able to make on our tools and tech.  It may be perfectly legal to produce a “ghost” gun, but we expressly prohibit the activity at the Idea Foundry. We need not enter a heady Second Amendment debate about the merits of gun control to acknowledge that the production of weapons in our shared spaces pose inherent safety and brand liabilities, doubly so if your space receives grants or financial support from stakeholders that would hardly want their reputation affixed to an entity allowing the production of homemade firearms.

We can honor our Maker culture without endangering our reputations as champions and stewards of responsible Making.


Further Reading:

Jeffrey Young, August, 2018, for EdSurge, Makerspaces nationwide face the question: can users 3D print a gun?

Andy Greenberg, June, 2015, for Wired, I made an untraceable AR-15 ‘ghost gun’ in my office--and it was easy

Brand-authored Blog post, December, 2016, for, Finishing an 80 Percent Lower: Overview & Tools Required for Success

Alissa Figueroa, April, 2014, for Fusion TV, Increasing number of homemade guns being used to kill

Brian Mann, November, 2017 for NPR, Do-It-Yourself 'Ghost Guns' Bypass Background Checks And Firearm Registration

Erin Dunne, July, 2018 for the Washington Examiner, Want to build a gun at home? You don’t need a 3D printer

Andy Greenberg, September, 2018, for Wired, The 3D printed gun machine rolls on, with or without Cody Wilson

Marrian Zhou, September, 2018 for CNET, 3D-printed gun controversy: Everything you need to know

German Lopez, August, 2018 for VOX, The battle to stop 3D printed guns, explained

115th Congressional session text, proposed bill to the US Senate: Untraceable Firearms Act

115th Congressional session text, proposed bill to the US Senate: 3D Printed Gun Safety Act

H.R. 4445- Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988