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March 1, 2013

Three Facts about “3D Printing”

Anti-gun activists have trotted out plenty of scare tactics over the past few months. One of these manufactured crises relates to the use of what has been termed “3D printing” technology to produce firearms. Despite the heated rhetoric, the fact remains that this technology, in itself, does not present a public safety problem.

Its high cost, limited effectiveness, and the need for highly-skilled experts to use this technology mean that criminals are not using – and will likely never  use – 3D printing to produce firearms.

Fact: 3D Printing Carries a High Cost for a Limited Benefit.

It costs many thousands of dollars to produce firearm parts using this advanced printer technology and the required computer-assisted design (CADCAM) programs. Established manufacturers may reap the benefits of the technology as a way to help develop prototypes for later production.

Even after the high cost, the end result is not as effective as a conventionally produced firearm. For example, in the frequently cited stunt in which a lower receiver for an AR-15 was produced using such technology, the assembled firearm fell apart after 6 shots. Even assuming their next try will work better, this is hardly a mass-production tool ready for do-it-yourself production of firearms.

Fact: Criminals Take Advantage of Easier, Cheaper Sources for Firearms.

There have been no reports of a criminal using 3D printing to manufacture a firearm. Considering that it would be easier and cheaper for criminals through more “traditional” means, the development of this technology will not change the fact that criminals have easier and cheaper avenues to obtain firearms.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 40 percent of criminals acquired their guns illegally, through theft or on the black market. Further, there has never been a crime committed with a 3D printed gun and ATF has never told us that “homemade” guns made using traditional tooling are turning up at crime scenes.

Fact: Firearms Are Already Regulated, Regardless of How They Are Produced.

Furthermore, firearms produced using this advanced manufacturing technology are already heavily regulated under current law. The 1968 Gun Control Act, the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act and other federal laws all govern firearms produced by a 3D printing process, just as they apply to conventional manufacturing processes using machine tools.  If the technology at some point in the distant future reached the point where fully functioning and reliable firearms could be brought to market, the sales of such firearms produced with this technology would be governed by these federal laws. Depending on jurisdiction, state statutes and local ordinances may also apply.

Despite rhetoric about “undetectable” firearms, if this technology were to reach the point in the future where it could be used to produce fully functional firearms, some critical components of the firearms and magazines, e.g. bolt, barrel liner, springs, would still be made of steel or other metals, and hence detectable. In addition, ammunition cartridges are made with metal components that are detectable.

In summary, given the exceedingly high costs and technical hurdles involved with 3D printing technology, the development of this advanced manufacturing technology does not pose a public safety risk. The federal laws now on the books are more than sufficient for its management.

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