3-D printing technology itself has only been around since the 1970s when it saw its initial conception and the idea itself began to formalize. However, in 1984 the concept turned into reality, and 3-D printing became a reality, being used in research and industrial settings. Around the early 2000s, the technology started to see private use, with the internet and open-source software allowing many to access the world of 3-D printing. In 2009, 3-D printers were being developed and sold to the general public, with the intent to commercialize the industry. Currently, the average person can pick up a 3-D printer and entry-level software for around US$200.
3-D printing itself is relatively harmless and is mostly used for printing simple plastic designs or parts for machinery. However, the technology has been exploited by those seeking to develop firearms. The ability to simply create a firearm presents several security risks. This first is a problem called ‘Ghost Guns’, which is the fact that these newly printed firearms are untraceable. Without being formally registered and lacking serial numbers, these guns are highly illegal in most countries and cannot effectively be tracked. The second risk is that the gun itself is made entirely out of plastic. Most metal detectors are incapable of detecting plastics, meaning that these guns can bypass several security measures without raising alarms. A third risk is the guns themselves. Firearms made of plastic often cannot contain the pressure of a bullet being fired resulting in the firearm simply exploding, which poses a risk to those involved in the development of 3-D firearms.
Figure 1: ATF test of 3-D printed firearm (‘the Liberator’) using VisiJet material https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZL7y3YNUbiY&t=2s
There have been several high-profile cases revolving around 3-D printed firearms and the legislation surrounding them, mainly within the US. Firstly, there is the case of Defence Distributed (DD), an online open-source group that publishes digital schematics for 3-D firearms that can be downloaded and used to print a 3-D firearm. In 2013, the company released digital schematics for a firearm called ‘the liberator’ and designs for AR-15 style receivers and magazines. Within days of this release, the US Department of State demanded that DD remove the schematics from the internet as it violates US International Traffic in Arms Regulations. DD then entered a court case with the US Department of State, which resulted in DD purchasing a license to sell digital schematics for a sum of US$40,000. However, shortly after this, DD released many more files into the public domain, resulting in multiple lawsuits, which as of now are still pending.
Figure 2: An example of a 3-D printed lower receiver (blue) being used on an AR-15 platform (https://www.businessinsider.com/i-3d-printed-an-ar-15-assault-rifle--and-it-shoots-great-2013-12?international=true&r=US&IR=T)
Another high-profile case took place in Canada, surrounding a firearm known as the ‘Grizzly’. This case represents how easy it is to print such a weapon as the man creating the firearm was an average person in his late 20s who goes by the pseudonym ‘Matthew’. The Grizzly was a 22. caliber rifle that took 3 days to print and cost around US$10,000. The first version of the rifle was only able to fire a single bullet before breaking. However, the Grizzly 2.0 was created and could fire roughly 14 bullets before breaking due to strain.
The final case surrounds the FGC-9 and the group known as Deterrence Dispensed (now called ‘the Gatalog’). Deterrence Dispensed is a decentralized online collective that promotes the distribution of 3-D printed firearms under freedom of speech. The group is best known for the FGC-9, a 9x19 millimeter semi-automatic carbine that can be manufactured with a 3-D printer and US$500. The firearm was designed to use a mixture of 3-D printed plastic and metal pressure bearings that can be manufactured along with other pieces such as springs, screws, nuts, and bolts. This list of parts is intentionally simple as it aims to avoid most in-place firearm regulations throughout the world. The firearm was initially released in 2020 by a German gun designer who goes by the name ‘JStark1809’. A second MKII design was released in April of 2021. The overall aim of the firearm was to spark political debate over the freedom of firearms worldwide with the FGC-9 standing for “F*ck Gun Control” and the 9 standing for the 9 Millimeter cartridge it uses. As of yet the group has yet to face any national courts and has gone relatively under the radar. In recent years, the FGC-9 has seen a spike in its usage. Several people across Europe have been arrested for producing these firearms. The design has even spread to Myanmar where it is being used by rebel forces in the civil war. Another documented sighting was the MkII variant seen in the hands of a member of the dissident Irish republican paramilitary Óglaigh na hÉireann. Despite its seemingly illegal nature, it is actually legal in several countries due to its design. The ATF in the United States for example has various restrictions placed on firearms, such as barrel length, stock size, magazine size, and caliber of the cartridge. The FGC-9 is designed specifically to dance around these restrictions and therefore uses several legal loopholes to dodge said restrictions. In a number of EU countries, the gun is legal as well, as said countries lack the legislation for the newer type of firearm. However, countries such as the UK and Australia already have legislation preventing the FGC-9 from being a legal firearm entirely.
Legislation to combat this new wave of illegal firearm production is slow due to its recent and relatively undocumented lifespan. The US Department of Homeland Security released a statement that due to the online nature of the trade, it will be difficult to combat and, so far, little has been done to limit the production of 3-D guns. In Europe, the gun control laws are stricter. However, the rise of the 3-D printed firearm is a growing concern within many European countries. The current debate around 3-D printed firearms has mostly subsided. However, in the US, the ‘Glock switch’ was created, which allows a handgun to be configured into either semi-automatic or fully automatic, breaching several US gun laws. The ATF is currently taking action against this piece of 3-D printed technology but progress is slow and so far there have been no updates since February 2023.
This is only a brief insight into the world of 3-D printed firearms. The list of 3-D printable digital schematics is continuously expanding and so far, there is little in place to stop it. Due to the recency of these cases, there is only a select amount of information available and only a handful of publicized cases. Legislation and international gun laws will likely have to shift alongside law enforcement agencies to limit the production of untraceable, cheap, and dangerous firearms worldwide.