May 6th, 2013 will stand out in the memory of anyone involved in the 3D printing community as the day that the mass media, for better or for worse, really took notice of this rapidly evolving field. That’s because as of right now, anyone in the United States can legally download and print their own fully functioning handgun.
As expected, the media has gone wild with the news that Defense Distributed finally made good on their plans of designing and releasing as open source the world’s first 3D printed firearm. But what does it really change? Does a 3D printed weapon pose any more of a threat than a traditionally obtained one? Does this development endanger the 3D printing field as a whole?
The DD Liberator
The Defense Distributed Liberator is a single shot .22 LR handgun that contains only a single component that can’t be printed on a 3D printer: the firing pin, for which you need to supply nothing more exotic than a small nail. Every other component, from the barrel to the springs that move the hammer, are 3D printed.
Essentially, the Liberator is nothing more than a “zip gun”, a form of improvised firearm that’s little more than a way to hold a .22 round steady while its primer is struck with a rudimentary firing pin. Like other improvised firearms, the Liberator is slow to reload, inaccurate, and has a rather nasty tendency to explode.
But unlike zip guns, the Liberator can be produced on a large scale with automated processes. It’s this distinction which has caused the most debate, as it turns the normally haphazard process of building homemade firearms into something that could be considered close to a full production run.
Of course, the most obvious argument against the Liberator is that it’s made (almost) entirely out of plastic, rendering metal detectors useless as a deterrent. The official documentation for the Liberator says you need to install a piece of metal into the weapon’s frame to comply with the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, but of course the person who constructs the weapon could simply skip that helpful suggestion.
This is illegal, right?
Not necessarily, no.
In the United States, you are allowed to build (for your own use) any weapon that you could otherwise obtain legally. In other words, if you could walk into a gun store and purchase a gun, you could also build one at home. Similarly, anything which is not legally obtainable under normal circumstances (such as fully automatic machine guns) can NOT be built at home legally.
You could even sell a weapon you built at home, so long as it wasn’t made with the intent to sell. If you built Liberators in large quantities with the goal of making a profit, that’s another story.
There is some debate about the fact that the Liberator, due to limitations in 3D printing technology, lacks a rifled barrel. This may put the Liberator into a different class of weapon, but in that case it’s possible to rifle the barrel manually after it has been printed and therefore comply with all ATF regulations.
So if the Liberator works as advertised (I.E. can shot a bullet without killing the person pulling the trigger at the same time) and is legal to print (at least in some parts of the world), does it pose a threat? Is this something we need to be worried about?
Take for example that printing the Liberator requires a significantly more capable printer than what most hobbyists have access to. The Liberator has been created for high end commercial 3D printers, not the cobbled together kits which individuals use (which still cost upwards of $1000 anyway). Not to say that it won’t be possible to adapt this design for less capable printers, but for safety reasons it’s probably ill advised.
Purchasing a handgun would certainly cost much less than the printer required to construct a Liberator, and would be several times more practical and powerful.
Even if you take price out of the equation, the Liberator is not a particularly good firearm. Single shot and smooth bore, the Liberator is more like firing a flintlock pistol than a modern weapon. It might be good for pretending you’re a pirate, but I wouldn’t want to try to defend my family with one.
The Liberator also has the rather inconvenient habit of consuming barrels at the same rate it does rounds of ammunition:
Before firing a barrel, we recommend heating acetone to boiling and treating the barrel for ~30 seconds to decrease the inner diameter friction, which increases barrel life from 1 round to ~10 rounds. Note that we recommend printing multiple barrels and using each only once. Swapping the barrels is simple and fast: rotate the barrel to release the locking cam. Pull up on the barrel. If the barrel cam broke, turn the Liberator upside down to remove the debris. Then drop your new barrel in and rotate it until it locks.
So unless you break out the boiling acetone (boy, doesn’t that sound like a lot of fun), you’re advised to throw out the barrel each time you fire the Liberator. Considering how slow 3D printers are, you’re talking about consuming a component which took hours to print in a split second.
If not a weapon in the traditional sense, then the Liberator is surely an ideological weapon, and in that capacity it’s extremely effective. It shows how absolutely pointless current concepts in gun control really are. What good are arbitrary limitations on magazine size in an era of self-manufactured weapons?
On the other hand, Defense Distributed have opened up themselves, and perhaps the entire 3D printing community, to critical attention on a global scale. The mass media and government is reactionary at best, and the Liberator is an easy target for those who want to put limits on what the individual has access to.
By releasing the Liberator as open source (under the zlib license), Defense Distributed has ensured that the Liberator will be here to stay. Even if Defense Distributed gets shut down, the source files for the Liberator are now so widely spread that the genie can never be put back in the bottle.
In the end, the fact of the matter is that the Liberator is more of a proof of concept than a realistic firearm. Defense Distributed created the Liberator to prove that they could, to show how worthless gun control laws are in the modern world, and perhaps most importantly, to exercise their rights as American citizens.