Back in 2013 Defense Distributed successfully created a working pistol using a $8,000 3D printer. This raised the specter of people printing guns for nefarious purpose and created quite a stir. The same company made the news in 2018 when Cody Wilson, an anarchist and owner of the company, was the subject of a lawsuit aimed at banning him from selling files for printing guns. As would be expected, this re-ignited the moral panic that occurred in 2013. While 3D printers are cheaper and better than in 2013, little else has changed—including my view of printing guns.
While the idea of criminals, terrorists and others printing their own guns is alarming, it is important to consider the facts of the alleged threat. As has often been pointed out, the 3D printer needed to make a functioning gun costs about $5,000 on the low end. While this is cheaper than the cost in 2013, $5,000 would buy a stack of guns and ammunition. As such, 3D printing a gun does not make much financial sense—if a person wants a gun, they can easily buy many better guns for less.
A second important point is that the typical printed gun is not much of a gun: it is a single shot, low caliber weapon. While it could hurt or even kill a person, it would be almost useless for someone intending to engage in a mass shooting and probably not very useful in most criminal endeavors. A criminal or terrorist would be foolish to choose such a weapon over a normal gun.
One sensible reply to these arguments is to point out that there are people who cannot legally own guns but who can a printer. These people, the argument would go, would be able to print guns to commit their misdeeds. The easy and obvious reply is that a person who is willing to break the law to illegally possess a printed gun can easily acquire normal guns for far less than the cost of the printer.
It could be countered that there are, for whatever reason, people who want an illegal gun but are unable or unwilling to buy a real gun illegally. For them, the printed gun would be an option. But, there is also an easy and obvious reply to this worry. Guns can be made using perfectly legal hardware acquired at a hardware store. This sort of improvised gun (the most common of which is called a “zip gun”) has been around a long time and can be easily made. Directions for these weapons are readily available on the internet and the parts are cheap. For those who cannot acquire bullets, there are even plans to make pneumatic weapons. Printing a gun just automates the process of making a homemade gun at a relatively high cost. So, the sudden moral panic over the printed gun is fundamentally misguided: it is just a technological variant of the worry that bad people will make guns at home.
While this does happen, people prefer to acquire professionally made guns when engaging in crimes and terrorist attacks. Thus, being worried about the threat posed by 3D printers and plans of guns for them is rather like being worried about the threat posed by hardware stores and plans for zip guns. While people can use them to make weapons, people are vastly more likely to use them for legitimate purposes and get their much better weapons some other way.
One could persist in arguing that the 3D printed gun will still be the only option for some terrorists. But, I suspect that they would forgo making homemade guns and instead go with homemade bombs. After all, a homemade bomb can do considerable damage and is far more effective than a homemade gun for such purposes. As such, there seems to be little reason to be worried about people printing up guns to commit crimes or make terrorists attacks. Real guns and more destructive weapons are readily available to everyone in the United States, so bans on printing guns or their plans would not make us any safer in terms of crime and terrorism. That said, a concern does remain.
While printing a gun to bypass the law makes no sense, there is the reasonable concern that people will print guns to bypass metal detectors. While the stock printed gun uses a metal firing pin, it would be easy enough to get this through security. The rounds would, of course, pose a bit of challenge—although plastic casings and bullets could be made. With such a gun, a would-be assassin could get into a government building or a would-be terrorist could get onto a plane. Or so one might things.
While this is a matter of concern, there are two points worth noting. First, as mentioned above, the stock printed gun is a single-shot low caliber weapon, which rather limits the damage a person can do with it. Second, while the gun is plastic, it is not invisible—it could be found by inspection and would show up on an X-ray. As such, the threat posed by such guns is extremely low. There is also the fact that one does not need a 3D printer to make a gun that can get past a metal detector (which are already illegal).
While the current technology can, for the most part, produce a limited gun, there is still the concern that advances in 3D printing will allow the affordable production of more effective firearms. For example, a low-cost home 3D printer that could produce a fully functional assault rifle or a machine pistol invisible to metal detectors would be very problematic. Of course, the printer would still need to be a cheaper and easier option than just getting guns the old-fashioned way, which is incredibly easy in the United States.
As a final point of concern, there is also the matter of the ban on the gun plans. Some have argued that to make the distribution of these plans illegal would violate the First Amendment, which is a matter for the courts. There is, of course, also the moral right of free expression. In this case, like other cases, it is a matter of weighing the harms of the expression against the harm inflicted by restricting it. Given the above arguments, I hold that the threat presented by printable guns does not warrant the restriction of the freedom of expression. As such, outlawing such plans would be immoral. To use an analogy, it would be like banning recipes for unhealthy foods when such food is readily available for purchase everywhere in the United States.