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3D printing could make anyone a gun maker

Authorities worry that criminals will get hold of printing machines and make their own weapons.
Last modified: 11 May 2013 03:23

Have you ever seen a 3D printer or an object printed by one? Do you have any idea what I'm on about?

I may be behind the times but until Friday I had no clue.

I'd heard people mention 3D printing in conversation but, to be honest, I can't even cope with the photocopiers here at Al Jazeera’s palatial headquarters in downtown Washington, DC, and they've been around for 40 years. So the chances of me getting to grips with 3D printers were pretty remote. Until today - and now I'm 3D printing's biggest fan!

It's a pity it took a gun story to get me there but you can't always pick your moments in life.

The reason I got involved is that the State Department asked a US company to remove from its websites plans that show how to print a gun using 3D technology.

The gun is a hand-held version called the "Liberator" and it's designed and built by the Texas-based firm, Defence Distributed, using 3D printing.

The US government wasn't happy that instructions for printing the gun were made available on the company's web site and asked for them to be taken down.

'Adverse consequences'

I went to a State Department briefing here in the Foggy Bottom district of Washington, DC to ask a question of Patrick Ventrell, the acting spokesperson. 

Sadly for me another hack beat me to it and Mr Ventrell said the State Department never comments on individual trade issues like this but, he went on: 

"The US is cognisant of the potentially adverse consequences of indiscriminate arms transfers and therefore we strictly regulate export of defence items to protect our national interests."

Making a gun using 3D technology requires an expensive printer that dribbles plastic resin layer-by-layer until the desired object is complete. 

It's possible to use other materials as well. 

Sometimes an object is carved out of a "sand-like” substance and moulded with glue.

Safe to say, watching an object get "printed" before your eyes is quite something. In fact I've never seen anything quite like it to be honest.

No one can say for certain whether the Liberator pistol will consistently work because of the heat and pressures involved with trying to fire a bullet - but the fact is it's possible to build one comparatively easily and cheaply.

100,000k downloads

Big US companies with 3D printers are very unlikely to print you a gun because it's against the law but the worry is that criminals will get hold of printing machines and do it themselves.

Internet users, meanwhile, have been trying hard to download the plans. Even though Defence Distributed complied with the State Department's request and removed them from their own websites immediately, they exist elsewhere on the web, and have been downloaded at least 100,000 times since authorities intervened.

With gun control still a hot political topic in the US, because of President Obama's push to strengthen laws in the wake of the Newtown school shootings, leading politicians are calling for more regulation of 3D gun printing.

Chuck Schumer, the senior US Senator from the state of New York - a Democrat – said: "We're facing a situation where anyone, a felon, a terrorist can open a gun factory in their garage and the weapons they make will be undetectable."

You can expect Federal and State authorities to continue calling for greater regulation. 

They'll want to stop gun printing becoming an everyday occurrence and turning any American Joe or Janet into a gun maker.

For most other purposes though - 3D printing is amazing.

It's been available to the likes of NASA for 30 years, but is only now finding its way onto Main Street at a price ordinary people can afford.