Today, a landmark in improvised engineering was reached. Plans for an (almost) entirely 3D printable firearm went up on the Internet, able to be freely downloaded by anyone.
The reactions around the Net are predictable. Libertarians and gun nuts are ecstatic, gushing all over themselves about how this will be the “end of gun control” and usher in some kind of “new age of freedom” or something.
Law and order types, gun control advocates, and the government are wetting themselves with the prospect of legions of terrorists printing up virtually undetectable firearms and taking over airplanes or something.
And it’s all completely ridiculous. Neither a new age of freedom nor a new age of terror are in the works; in fact, I’m quite confident in predicting the total impact of this technology will be statistically undetectable. Self-congratulatory (on the one side) and paranoid (on the other) ravings aside, this thing simply does not make any meaningful difference whatsoever.
First, let’s see this
harbinger of freedom end of civilization toy for rich white kids:
It’s printed from ABS plastic on an $8,000 3D printer. Almost everything is plastic, including the barrel; the only non-plastic parts are an ordinary nail (for the firing pin) and the bullet itself (in this case, a .380 caliber).
Now, I’ve owned firearms and shot recreationally for most of my life,1 and the first thing I can say upon seeing this thing is that I wouldn’t want to fire it. My instinct is that it’s probably about as dangerous to whoever’s on the trigger end as whoever’s on the business end.
The one shown here was test-fired three times. The first time, it misfired. The second time, it successfully fired a .380 round without destroying itself. The third time, when the .380 was replaced with a 5.7×28 cartridge, it exploded.
Could it survive multiple shots with the smaller round? I don’t know. Maybe. I wouldn’t bet my life on it. Doesn’t really matter. Not only is this thing not a game changer, I reckon it’s about as significant in terms of its overall impact on society as whatever toy they choose to put into a box of Cracker Jacks next week.
For starters, what you’re looking at here is not only a shoddy firearm of dubious reliability and ruggedness; it’s an
$8,050 $9,000 shoddy firearm of dubious reliability and ruggedness. This prototype was printed on an $8,000 3D printer with about $50 worth of materials, making it arguably the single most expensive zip gun that’s ever been fabricated. A person looking for cheap, untraceable guns would be able to buy an arsenal on the street for less than the cost of the printer that produced this thing. (Edit: It turns out that this gun actually requires $1,000 worth of plastic toner to print, making it arguably the most expensive zip gun ever made even if the cost of the 3D printer isn’t factored in.)
Now, I already know what you’re going to say. The cost of 3D printers is dropping quickly. People can rent one or use one at a school. Companies will 3D print parts for you.
All of which is true, but irrelevant; the ability to make crude, cheap firearms for a lot less than just the cost of the plastic alone for this thing has existed…well, for about as long as firearms have existed. Prisoners have been known to build guns from parts available in prisons.
It has never been lack of availability that has kept people from using small single-shot firearms like this. The reason every criminal in town isn’t sticking up convenience stores with zip guns isn’t that they have been languishing in wait for a Libertarian college student to design one that can be 3D printed and put on the Internet; it’s that these things are virtually worthless as weapons. They tend to be used in prisons but few places besides, because they’re unreliable, prone to failure, inaccurate, and dangerous to the operator.
Just like, ahem, the 3D printed version.
Seriously. Even when they work, you have to be at point-blank range (or better yet, in contact with your intended target) for them to be terribly effective.
Which leads to the next hand-wringing objection: OMG this is made of PLASTIC you can take it onto an AIRPLANE through a METAL DETECTOR!
Which is, err, only kind of true. It’s a bit bulky to hide on your person, and there’s still the fact that the firing pin and ammunition are metal. Now, you might be able to get a nail through security on some pretext or other, but I doubt many folks will let you carry ammunition onto a plane.
If they notice it, which is a different matter; I’ve had friends who’ve carried brass knuckles and switchblades onto planes without difficulty. The reality is that few people actually want to, and have the means to, attack an airplane; nearly all of what happens at the airport is security theater, not security.
But let’s assume just for amusement that you can get one of these onto a plane. So what? What of it?
If I wanted to attack an airplane with a weapon I made on a 3D printer, it wouldn’t be this gun. Even if it works, it only works once, and I doubt the other passengers would sit around idle while I reloaded it and prepared to fire again. Assuming that the first shot actually did any good anyway.
The guy who designed this says “You can print a lethal device. It’s kind of scary, but that’s what we’re aiming to show,” as if this is the first time that’s been possible. Sorry, kid, but you’re a ridiculous wanker; a 3D printed knife or spear is actually a lot more lethal than this toy gun. (There’s a reason shivs rather than zip guns are the preferred weapon in places like prisons, and it’s not all down to scarcity of ammunition; given how easily drugs flow into American prisons, ammo isn’t that much of a stretch if there were a demand for it.) The 9/11 hijackers, who were well-funded, used…box cutters.
But I wouldn’t carry a 3D printed knife, or even a cheaper and better ceramic knife, onto a plane with mischief in mind either, because I’m not suicidal. Post 9/11, one thing has actually made air travel safer: the fact that the other passengers aren’t about to sit quietly by and hope for the best if someone tries to take a plane. All the other security changes that have happened since then have paled in effectiveness next to passenger attitude.
So, here’s the million-dollar question. You take a plastic gun onto an airplane, and…what, exactly? What in the name of the seven holy fucks and the twelve lesser fucks do you do then? What’s your plan?
If your goal is to destroy the plane, you can’t do that with this thing. If your goal is to take over the plane, well…good luck with that. You might survive what the other passengers do to you, maybe, if you’re lucky. Everybody is shrieking about how this thing can defeat airline security…and then what?
In fact, that million-dollar question can be extended to just about any possible use for this thing. You’ve bought yourself an eight-grand 3D printer, or somehow got access to it. You download the plans like an eager little hacker and you print this out, and then you…um, what do you do then? Go online and brag to your Maker friends?
You aren’t going to use this for home defense. I mean, seriously. A baseball bat or a tire iron makes a better home defense weapon, and the baseball bat probably has a longer effective range.
You’re not going to use it to outfit your secret militia that’s
pining for anticipating the day that the Federal government starts rolling the tanks down Main Street. You aren’t even going to use an AR-15 for that, because, listen, seriously? The government has drones. They can blow your ass to hell and gone and you’ll never even see someone to shoot at.
You aren’t going to take it down to the range and pop off a few rounds in the general direction of paper cutouts of zombies or Trayvon Martin. No gun range is going to let you anywhere near the firing line with this; it’s too dangerous to the other shooters.
And please, please tell me you think you can go hunting with this thing. Bring a video camera and let me know when the video is up on YouTube. You can’t get enough of that for my entertainment dollar.
So you’re going to print it out, you’re going to put it together, and then…what, exactly? I’m still not clear on that.
Now, if you designed it, what you’ll do is obvious: you’ll get media exposure for congratulating yourself on what a clever Libertarian you are. And as near as I can tell, that’s really this thing’s only usefulness.
1 Full disclosure: I’ve been a private firearm owner on and off since 1988. I like guns, I like target shooting, and I’m neither opposed to nor afraid of guns. All that being said, I still won’t fire one of these.