Skip to main content

3-D printed guns are a boon for criminals

By Christopher J. Ferguson, Special to CNN
May 7, 2013 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Defense Distributed, a Texas nonprofit group, posted a YouTube video it says shows the first live firing of a handgun entirely created with a 3-D printer. Defense Distributed, a Texas nonprofit group, posted a YouTube video it says shows the first live firing of a handgun entirely created with a 3-D printer.
HIDE CAPTION
Inside a 3-D printed gun
Inside a 3-D printed gun
Inside a 3-D printed gun
Inside a 3-D printed gun
Inside a 3-D printed gun
Inside a 3-D printed gun
Inside a 3-D printed gun
Inside a 3-D printed gun
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A group used 3-D printer to make a plastic handgun that can fire a real bullet
  • Christopher Ferguson: The ramifications of such a weapon are potentially profound
  • He says if a criminal can't pass a background check, he can just print his own gun at home
  • Ferguson: How will government regulate these workable and untraceable guns?

Editor's note: Christopher J. Ferguson is chair of the psychology and communication department at Texas A&M International University. He is the author of the novel "Suicide Kings."

(CNN) -- For those out there worried that our nation's stern gun laws were keeping firearms out of the hands of too many people, the solution appears to have arrived: the printable gun.

Produced by a nonprofit organization called Defense Distributed, this small plastic gun, dubbed the "Liberator," has been tested and is able to fire a bullet in a video demo. Assuming this is no crazy hoax, the ramifications of such a weapon for gun control are potentially profound.

I can't imagine that too many people with rational minds think printable guns will add to the serenity of the world. Granted, 3-D printers aren't yet a household item, but as technology improves and becomes less expensive, they may become common.

Christopher J. Ferguson
Christopher J. Ferguson

Although the "Liberator" appears unreliable, tending to fragment after a few shots, subsequent models will likely improve. Either way, it's a workable and untraceable gun.

Open source guru Eric Raymond has said, "I approve of any development that makes it more difficult for governments and criminals to monopolize the use of force." The development of the printable gun seems to be particularly popular with the ultra-libertarian crowd. The founder of Defense Distributed apparently describes himself as a crypto-anarchist.

It's difficult to envision a situation in which a law-abiding homeowner prints a gun for self-defense. Sure, a few people may print the darn things for the novelty of it. But the printable gun, assuming it moves forward unregulated, would be the obvious realm of the criminal.

Can't pass a background check? No need to take your chances, such as they are, at a gun show anymore. Just print out your weapon from home! As only the firing pin is metal (a household nail), I can only imagine the nightmare of trying to detect these things.

CNN Explains: 3-D printing

Most homicides are impulsive, not the cold calculated affairs of Agatha Christie novels. Would enraged individuals without a gun be able to print one of these in response to some perceived slight? Yes, they'd have to go buy a bullet (and a nail), but it's still a way around a background check.

This scenario seems foolish only because it's already so easy to get a real gun. There are approximately 300 million guns in the United States. If we want to reduce the number of homicides (or suicides for that matter), making it difficult to get immediate access to guns can help reduce impulsive behaviors. Allowing people to print their own gun is just the opposite.

Beyond a doubt, calmer heads will want to regulate these things. I'm not a lawyer, but I suspect this is one example in which technology may have raced ahead of the law. Is Defense Distributed selling guns or information? Is this a gun control issue or a First Amendment issue? Can the printers be regulated to refuse to print weapons, or could new designs simply circumvent existing prohibited products?

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, has expressed interest in legislation to block printable guns , so we'll see where it leads. As he puts it, "We're facing a situation where anyone -- a felon, a terrorist -- can open a gun factory in their garage and the weapons they make will be undetectable. It's stomach-churning." It seems that way.

Don't get me wrong. I'm probably about as neutral as anyone can be on the issue of gun control. I believe law abiding citizens have constitutional rights to own weapons. But at the same time I believe in reasonable safeguards to make sure access to firearms is limited from criminals and those with chronic mental illnesses.

In this sense, to me, printable guns are a step in the wrong direction. Granted, the actual impact of printable guns on societal violence is obviously unknown. Perhaps they'll remain so unreliable or difficult to assemble from the individual pieces that the impact will be negligible. Or perhaps not.

Some have described Defense Distributed's efforts as a kind of political performance art. Very funny, Defense Distributed. We get it. I just hope we don't regret it.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christopher J. Ferguson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT