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Modern “Ghost Guns”: How 3D Printing Will Affect the Gun Industry

America’s gun industry could see major changes in coming years.

By Harley Austin | United States

Ever since 3D printers became affordable and popular, they’ve always seemed like something straight out of science fiction. While the technology is still in its infancy, 3D printing has found many applications, from amateurs printing plastic toys to large companies printing parts for computer hardware. However, the technology has recently found a more unexpected use: producing firearm components.

The Capabilities of 3D Printed Firearms

Starting in 2012, the organization Defense Distributed has been revolutionizing modern gun manufacturing through the use of 3D printing and open-source sharing of blueprints and designs. The organization began with 3D printed lower receivers for the AR-15 and magazines for the AR-15 and AK-47. DD later released DEFCAD, a website dedicated to 3D printed weapon designs such as the Liberator pistol, and the Ghost Gunner, a 3D printer specializing in printing gun components. In addition to lower receivers and magazines, the Ghost Gunner can also 3D print frames for M1911s and Glock pistols.

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-Ghost Gunner 2

One of Defense Distributed’s most monumental achievements has been the creation of the world’s first fully 3D printed gun, the Liberator, in 2013. While the Liberator itself, a single shot .380 pistol, isn’t a major technological marvel on its own, the use of 3D printing to make fully functional “ghost guns” is absolutely groundbreaking. However, developing more complex guns using 3D printing is a very difficult task that is still many years away, so don’t expect large 3D ghost gun printers to be available anytime soon.

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-The Liberator Pistol

The Legal Challenges of Ghost Guns

Because of the potential capabilities to circumvent US gun control laws, these innovations have also brought major legal problems for Defense Distributed and its founder, Cody Wilson. Shortly after the Liberator’s designs were put online, the US Directorate of Defense Trade Controls had the files taken off the internet, claiming that sharing the designs through DEFCAD violated the International Traffic in Arms Regulation.

Despite this, some of the files still circulated the internet through websites such as The Pirate Bay, a site dedicated to pirated files and media. In 2015, Defense Distributed took the DDTC to court, claiming that taking down the files was a violation of DD’s 1st, 2nd, and 5th Amendment rights. The organization went through a very long legal process until July 10th, 2018, when the court finally concluded that sharing internet files, regardless of the content, was protected by the 1st Amendment. Thanks to this, Defense Distributed will relaunch DEFCAD on August 1st, 2018, with their website currently saying “the age of the downloadable gun formally begins.”

The Political Impacts

Since its inception, Defense Distributed has had a very political motivation for what it does, according to Cody Wilson, a self-proclaimed crypto-anarchist. According to Wilson, DEFCAD is meant to serve as an open source method for obtaining all sorts of designs, including ghost guns, free from the regulations of industry and government. Defense Distributed is meant to make 3D printed weapons both a reality and readily available to the public as a means of subverting the state.

“That’s a real political act, giving you a magazine, telling you that it will never be taken away. … That’s real politics. That’s radical equality. That’s what I believe in. … I’m just resisting. What am I resisting? I don’t know, the collectivization of manufacture? The institutionalization of the human psyche? I’m not sure. But I can tell you one thing: this is a symbol of irreversibility. They can never eradicate the gun from the earth.” -Cody Wilson during a 2013 interview

Underlying both DD and DEFCAD is a strong belief that technology can overpower law and that the modern gun control laws are outdated and completely avoidable in a world where gun designs can be one simple download away. Cody Wilson has also written a book, titled Come and Take It: The Gun Printer’s Guide to Thinking Free, about the creation of DD and the influences for it.

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-Cody Wilson holding a Liberator pistol

In terms of the future of gun rights, manufacturing, and ownership, the possibilities seem to be endless thanks to 3D printing. The possibility of 3D printing unregistered firearms, known as “ghost guns,” in your own home could mean the end for tyrannical gun laws. With the ability to circumvent most regulations and laws, the possibility of regaining absolute gun rights is closer than ever before. From a manufacturing standpoint, 3D printing could make firearms more available for the average person because of cheaper production costs. 3D printing also allows for a wide array of customization, something very popular in the gun community, such as personalized parts and engravings.

A Golden Future?

While 3D printing is still a very new technology, especially with firearms, many new innovations and applications are being discovered. In terms of gun manufacturing, the future looks bright for 3D printing and Defense Distributed. Whether this technology will usher in a new golden age for gun rights, individual freedom, and innovations or just end up taking a few hundred dollars off an AR-15 price tag, only time will tell, but the future is certainly promising.


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