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If gun control legislation is about access, what happens with 3D guns?

Gun used in the Sochi Olympics.
Gun used in the Sochi Olympics.
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Is 3-D printing a security threat? The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives thinks so, after assembling a 3-D printed gun using a freely available blueprint online. Officials at the Bureau discovered the plastic weapon was capable of successfully firing off multiple .380-caliber bullets confirming what many firearm and 3-d printing enthusiasts already know: 3-D printed guns are here, and although they might not be ready for primetime yet - they can definitely work.

Printed revolution

3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is not a new technology—at least not as new as most people think. What is actually new is the spread of affordable desktop versions of 3-D printers. It's been called the 3-D printing revolution, and for the average DIY home industrialist, it brings the power of manufacturing to your doorstep. No factory overhead, nor labor- and energy-intensive processes are required to make professional-grade goods right at home.

But the prospect of cheap 3-D printing raises enough questions that it makes cloning Dolly the sheep seem uncontroversial. Imagine being able to print out whatever object you wanted: a doll or toy soldier for your kids, a new laptop for work. How about a perfect pizza for dinner—or an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle with a detachable, high-capacity magazine for gunning down coyotes in the desert?

Gun owner's dream, government nightmare

It sounds like a dream for most American gun owners, but also a potential nightmare from a regulation stand point. Firearm laws depend on the fact that guns are manufactured separately from and later sold to consumers. Whether they're manufactured in mass, or crafted by highly trained, professional gunsmiths from a practical perspective the government can easily step in and impose regulation if it choses to - 2nd amendment notwithstanding.

But with 3d printing, the manufacturing process and the point-of-sale are no longer choke points to be controlled through regulation. If private citizens cut out those steps and simply manufacture guns in the home, how will the government regulate it without being the proverbial sword wielder chopping the heads off a hydra?

What's frightening—or exciting, depending on your view—about 3-D printed guns, is they could be easily manufactured in the privacy of anyone's home, tucked away from the eyes of law enforcement. Would having cheap, widely available 3-D printing technology and blueprint file-sharing crack open Pandora's box, unleashing a wave of illegal next-gen guns onto an already saturated firearms market? Or would it - as most gun advocates state - only help ensure that regular citizens are able to exercise their constitutional rights?

California 'ghost guns'

3-D printed guns also raise concerns partly because they may be made of plastic that won't show up on a metal detector. But even metal 3-D printed guns could pose control problems if they are not registered.

California legislators aren't waiting to find out. A legislative session in Sacramento earlier this month featured a display of two homemade, 3-D printed AR-15 assault rifles, meant to drive home the reality of printed firearms. The display accompanied a proposed state ban on plastic or self-assembled firearms which lack serial numbers or are sold without a background check on the buyer.

The proposal intends to keep homemade, including printed, weapons out of the hands of criminals, terrorists and others who would love a convenient way to skip the exposure of a background check, said sponsoring State Senator from Los Angeles, Kevin de León.

In June of 2013, a gun rampage that left five people dead in the coastal city of Santa Monica, California was accomplished with a homemade gun. Before building his own, the shooter had tried and failed to purchase a gun legally, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

De Leon's proposed legislation would subject homemade guns to the same laws normally applied to conventional, legal guns in California. But the City of Philadelphia, where gun violence is rampant, has gone further. In November, it became the first U.S. city to ban 3-D printed gun manufacturing outright.

Defending against tyranny

It's not clear whether 3-D printed guns would be the population's best defense against tyranny or a frightening new source of tyranny itself. What is clear is that the unrestricted online sale of guns in the U.S. is already widespread, and occupies a thriving niche in the global arms trade. According to a September 2013 report by the non-profit Mayors Against Illegal Guns, thousands of Americans who are barred from purchasing a gun are buying them online in large numbers without background checks, no questions asked.

Would draconian legislation against 3-D printed ghost guns be very effective in practice? As the Department of Homeland Security pointed out, regulating free gun files online won't be any less challenging than regulating music, movie and software transfers on popular file sharing websites like The Pirate Bay.

The Internet defines the era of the 'ghost gun'—unregistered, unregulated, anonymously acquired online. Now, 3-D printing has brought us the DIY ghost gun. Will 3-D printing change everything? Maybe, maybe not, but it will certainly add fuel to what is already a very large and very hot fire.

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