As 3D printing makes it easier to create homemade weapons, attorneys general are pushing to stem the tide of unaccountable firearms.
In 2016, a Texas man named Eric McGinnis, who reportedly called himself “Eric the Ruler,” was turned away from a federally licensed gun dealer in an attempt to buy a firearm after a required criminal background check revealed a protective order against him. He sidestepped the rules and bought a 3D printer to build an AR-15 assault rifle instead. In July 2017, he took that new rifle to a wooded area just outside Dallas, and, when police officers heard shots fired, falsely claimed to be a member of the CIA. In his backpack, the officers discovered a hit list that included addresses of several federal lawmakers, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas, which brought a case against him.
“I didn’t buy a gun, I built a gun,” he said in a recorded phone call, according to the authorities. He was sentenced to eight years in prison in February 2019.
Since then, the debate over what to do about 3D-printed “ghost guns” has only become more intense. The technology of 3D printing has improved dramatically, while the number of firms making 3D printers has proliferated. Meanwhile, on Reddit forums, YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet, gun enthusiasts have promoted 3D-printed guns, even sharing details on how to print weapons at home on inexpensive 3D printers available for sale on Amazon.
Neither of the shooters in the recent killings at an Atlanta massage parlor and a Boulder, Colorado, grocery store used 3D-printed weapons. However, those shootings have raised broad questions about how to safely regulate all types of firearms. In the wake of the mass killings, President Biden called for gun reform, including universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. On Tuesday, New York Attorney General Letitia James called for Biden and Congress “to work together to ban ghost guns once and for all.”
Blueprints for the first 3D printed gun, a one-shot handgun known as the Liberator, were first released online in 2013 by a Texas non-profit group known as Defense Distributed, sparking litigation that went on for years. (The organization is currently prohibited from publishing those plans, and an appeal was dismissed last January.) But today you can print more advanced untraceable weapons. A gun designer using the pseudonym Jacob or jstark1809 released designs for a 3D-printable semiautomatic pistol caliber carbine known as the FGC-9 (the name standing for “F**k Gun Control Nine”) last year.
Some of the top 3D printing companies prohibit the use of their products for making firearms, and maker spaces can monitor users and stop them from fabricating guns, if they choose. “Carbon’s terms of service prohibit the use of our products to print guns or gun parts,” says a spokesperson for that Silicon Valley-based 3D-printing unicorn.
“Formlabs’ terms of service expressly prohibit the use of our printers for any illegal or unauthorized purpose, including the manufacture of a firearm where it is legally regulated,” says Max Lobovosky, cofounder and CEO of 3D printing unicorn Formlabs.
“The idea that there can be a proliferation of firearms that nobody knows about … is pretty terrifying.”
“We have indeed a company policy to not support the 3D manufacturing of any weapons and as part of that we have developed internal processes to identify manufacturing orders for weapons or parts of weapons,” says a spokesperson for publicly traded 3D printing firm Materialise, which has a focus on software. “For obvious reasons I cannot provide any further details about these processes.”
But not all firms have such a policy, and even for those that do it’s not clear how such prohibitions would be enforced, particularly for basic home-use printers. Online, some gun builders have recommended the Ender 3 printer from Creality, a Shenzhen, China-based firm, that’s sold on Amazon for as little as $206. Creality did not respond to an email seeking comment.
To be sure, building a workable gun on a 3D printer would take more time and expertise than buying a firearm at Cabela’s. “3D printing is not a particularly practical way to make a gun,” Lobovsky wrote in an op-ed two and a half years ago.
“It would take some technical expertise to 3D-print a gun, frankly, but it’s not impossible, and especially parts of the gun you could do that,” says Mo Islam, a partner at VC firm Threshold Ventures, who focuses on industrial innovation. “If we start to see more 3D-printed guns, it should be regulated, just how the manufacturing of guns is regulated to a certain degree.”
The problem with 3D-printed guns is less their existence per se than the fact that they currently can’t be traced. No one knows how many are in existence, or whether criminals or terrorists could have them, and there’s no way to track them without serial numbers or registration. “The idea that there can be a proliferation of firearms that nobody knows about, that don’t have a serial number, that aren’t registered, that aren’t made by a gun manufacturer, is pretty terrifying,” says Connecticut Attorney General William Tong.
Earlier this week, Tong and 17 other attorneys general from states that include Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Michigan, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland calling on him to “put an end to the alarming rise of ghost guns in our communities.” They call for treating all ghost guns – which includes any unfinished frames and receivers that can be created at home, including those that are 3D printed – to be treated the same as all firearms. That would mean that purchasers would be required to undergo background checks and the products would need to have serial numbers so they could be tracked. In the letter, the attorneys general point to the spikes in recoveries of ghost guns, for example to 306 in 2020 from just three in 2017 in Washington, D.C., as a reason to act now.
Some states – including Connecticut and Rhode Island – have taken matters into their own hands with bans on 3D printed guns and other ghost guns and other regulations. Tong doesn’t know how many states have passed “ghost gun” rules, but says he suspects it’s a “small minority.”
A patchwork of legislation is one step above self-regulation by the companies themselves. Tong says that he has not yet received a response from Garland on the letter that he and the other state attorneys general sent.
Multi-state litigation by a group of 21 state attorneys general had earlier won a preliminary injunction against the Trump Administration’s efforts to allow 3D-printed gun files to be released on the Internet, and keeping their regulation under the State Department, which enforces rules on military weaponry, rather than transferring them to the Department of Commerce, which could allow for their unlimited distribution. The case remains open.
“We would certainly object to a website that said, ‘here get plans and a kit to make your own suicide bomb.’ We don’t think that’s okay. I know that they are different, but something that is inherently dangerous requires some regulation, and something that can be used in the commission of a crime or a terrorist attack ought to be subject to regulation,” says Connecticut’s Tong. “Frankly, I don’t understand why this is controversial.”