Are 3D Plastic Guns Really a Threat? Four Blunt Points

Cody Wilson shows the first completely 3D-printed handgun, the Liberator, at his home in Austin, Tex., on May 10 Photograph by Jay Janner/Austin American Statesman via AP Photo

The feds have sprayed some lighter fluid on the fire about 3D plastic guns. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says the homemade futuristic weapons “can potentially create a huge problem.” Count me, again, as dubious. Here’s why:

First, the background. 3D printers use digital designs to build a variety of devices out of thousands of layers of hard plastic. On Nov. 13, the ATF held a media briefing to announce that the agency had used one to make a plastic handgun. The agency said it had fabricated a model known as the Liberator, designed by a Texas libertarian and DIY firearm enthusiast named Cody Wilson. The government said its version fired eight rounds. “There are ways that this can potentially create a huge problem for the American public,” said Richard Marianos, an assistant director of the agency. The Washington Post, the New York Times, our cousins at Bloomberg View, and other outlets sounded alarms. The ATF wants to generate support for the reauthorization of a 1988 law that bans “undetectable” firearms and is due to expire early next month.

The furor overlooks some inconvenient facts. Undetectable weapons, be they firearms, swords, nunchucks, or radioactive wave generators, could very well be dangerous. Those imaginary weapons aren’t actually used, however, in stickups, school massacres, airplane hijackings, or political assassinations. Bad guys want weapons that work. The 9/11 hijackers commandeered passenger jets with utility knives, box cutters, and ruthless coordination. Even if a criminal did, for some reason, want to make his own firearm, there are less complicated ways to do it than using a $10,000 3D printer hooked up to a laptop. When you stop to think about it, why would a thug bother to build his own gun, when Glock pistols and Bushmaster military-style semiautomatic rifles are readily available online? Maybe he doesn’t want to use a credit card. Well, then he’d pay cash at a retail shop or weekend gun show. Or he’d do business with the guy down the street who sells handguns from the trunk of his car.

It’s true that thousands of people downloaded Cody Wilson’s Liberator design before the government ordered its removal from the Internet. My strong guess is that curiosity, not criminality, motivated those downloads. Most criminals in need of firepower would just go out and buy, steal, or borrow a gun.

We’ve been down this road before. In the late 1980s, gun-control advocates tried to ban an Austrian-made Glock that was fabricated mostly from industrial-strength plastic and demonized as a weapon that would defy airport security. Congress held hearings and then passed the original undetectable gun ban. Strangely, though, the Federal Aviation Administration concluded that the Glock wasn’t really a threat at all. If screening personnel paid attention, they could detect the gun-shaped piece of plastic, not to mention the bullets needed to make the Glock lethal, the FAA said. “That was a big ‘oops’ moment,” Richard Aborn, a former president of Handgun Control, now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, once told me. “We made the classic mistake of failing to do our homework.”

As I’ve written, the gun-control misfire on Glock wasn’t just an embarrassment to Aborn and other liberal activists. The controversy played a critical role in drawing attention to the Glock and making it “America’s gun.”

So, by all means, reauthorize the law against invisible guns. I’m not thrilled at the prospect of 3D-printing wonks making weapons. I just don’t see them as much of a danger to anyone other than themselves. The ATF may have gotten its Liberator to fire eight times, but I wouldn’t want to be holding that thing for the ninth or 10th round. Glock knows how to manufacture a pistol, which is why some two-thirds of American police departments use its handguns. (Glock, it should be noted, uses metal for several crucial components.) A truly all-plastic firearm “would be very unreliable and very unsafe,” according to Larry Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade group representing gun manufacturers that’s allied with the National Rifle Association. The NSSF, by the way, supports the renewal of the undetectable gun law. An NRA spokesman didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

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