Those who were waiting to get their hands on some 3D-printable firearm schematics are in for a disappointment: After eight states and the District of Columbia filed a joint lawsuit in federal court, a nationwide temporary restraining order was granted to stop the files from being posted by a Texas nonprofit called Defense Distributed.
The distribution of blueprints for 3D-printable guns had previously been classified as illegal munitions export, but this May, the State Department announced a plan to amend the International Traffic in Arms Regulations regime to move the regulation of certain technical data to the jurisdiction of the Commerce Department. In response, 21 state attorneys general sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying that the decision was “deeply dangerous and could have an unprecedented impact on public safety.”
Regardless, little will change. Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson first published blueprints for a printable gun called the Liberator more than five years ago. The files were removed after government demands, but a fundamental feature of the internet is that information never disappears. A search engine query can still surface copies of Wilson’s design files on internet archives and piracy sites across the web.
The whole episode mirrors the saga of cryptography, which was also once on the U.S. Munitions List. Prior to 1996, encryption software could not legally be exported or distributed. But software is just strings of text! Export controls on cryptography became such a joke that cryptographers printed a simple encryption script onto T-shirts and wore them in an act of defiance.
Firearms are capable of a lot more damage than encryption, but this doesn’t mean we’re ushering in a dangerous new era in which nutjobs will be printing semiautomatic weapons from the comfort of their homes. There’s a reason we haven’t seen an uptick in the number of crimes committed using 3D-printed firearms since the Liberator plans became public five years ago: It’s not actually that convenient. Legalizing distribution of the plans will make them more readily accessible to amateur gunsmiths, but won’t transform 3D-printed guns into formidable weapons.
Depending on the 3D printer, the parts would take most of a day to complete. This is assuming the operator even has access to a precision printer. Entry-level machines can’t form parts with the tolerances and temperature control needed to produce a reliable firearm.
Even if made using today’s best 3D printing, the guns still aren’t very good. Any material pliable enough to feed through a printer will have trouble surviving the pressure and temperature required to propel a bullet at thousands of feet per second. (The instructions accompanying the Liberator recommend discarding the barrel after each use.) 3D-printed firearms are a clever idea, but not a very practical one.
The real purpose of Wilson’s blueprints is to dramatize the futility of gun control, much like encryption T-shirts were intended to troll those who wanted to ban encryption. Every outrageous article warning of a future where anyone can print deadly weapons serves only to validate his point and increase the hype around printable guns. Wilson’s Twitter account proudly retweets every terrifying headline — His organization couldn’t have bought better advertising if they’d wanted to.
Those headlines are overwrought. Yes, sufficiently-determined Americans can print a plastic firearm. But it’ll be unreliable and quite likely to misfire and explode. (If you absolutely must proceed, consider taking a safety course while waiting for the gun pieces to print.)
Even if the Supreme Court overturns the temporary injunction, 3D-printable firearms are unlikely to catch on anytime soon. It would help if fear-mongerers stopped providing free advertising.
Elaine Ou is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a blockchain engineer at Global Financial Access in San Francisco. Previously she was a lecturer in the electrical and information engineering department at the University of Sydney.