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3D Printed Guns Explained

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3d printed gun

No, you can’t just download a gun from the Internet to have it 3d printed. Here is what is really going on:

A legal agreement between the U.S. government and a gun rights organization is setting the stage for the latest skirmish in the wars over gun rights and gun control. The agreement allows the group Defense Distributed to host a collection of files online that can be downloaded and, with the help of a 3D printer, can print the necessary parts to build working 3D printed firearms. Numerous states are now rushing to ban their residents from downloading the files. Even the President of the United States weighed in on the topic. But the truth is a little bit murkier than the headlines.

What a Gun Is

Here is the first thing that you need to know: These files are the instructions sets for 3D printed items that are legally considered firearms. But in reality, what they add up to falls far short of an actual, workable gun.

When most people think of the word “firearms,” they picture complete rifles, shotguns, pistols, and revolvers. You can load them with ammunition, pull the trigger, and they actually fire. But there is another definition of firearm – rather than just buying a whole weapon at a gun store, many gun enthusiasts like to build their guns from the ground up from a collection of parts. Of course, the government must regulate these homemade guns.  This is why it classifies their receivers (basically the frame that holds the key parts) as a type of firearm. Because without the frame you can’t build your firearm.

Defense Distributed’s downloadable files are designed to make 3D printed receivers. What comes out of the 3D printer isn’t a working weapon.  It  but something that still must be mated to bolts, barrels, trigger groups, stocks, and other necessary parts before it ever fires a bullet. Their Liberator pistol design is perhaps the closest thing to a complete printable firearm, but the enthusiast must still source a nail for a firing pin.

The Easiest Way To Build a Gun?

The 3D printing method is not even the easiest way to build a firearm – that’s accomplished with so-called “80 percent receivers.” That is to say they are about 80 percent of a working receiver, requiring a person to have only a drill press or hand tools, and the requisite DIY skills, to finish the remaining 20 percent.

Building a gun this way from parts already on the market is much easier and also cheaper than the 3D printing method. 3D printing gun parts is the most complicated way for a criminal to get his hands on a firearm.  Stealing a gun from a legal gun owner, buying a gun on the black market, and finishing an 80 percent receiver are all easier.

There is no telling whether Defense Distributed’s file sharing will lead to a meaningful bump in 3D printed gun crimes.  Criminals smart enough to 3D print their own guns are also smart enough to see the shortcomings in the process and find another way to get them.  Despite all the fire and fury over the issue, in the long term it is likely the files will be much more useful to tinkerers and hobbyists operating within the law.

Adapted from an  article on

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