Ready or not: U.S. unleashing 3D-printed ‘ghost guns’ for the entire internet
The era of the untraceable, undetectable, 3D-printed gun is almost upon us, and it’s not going to respect international borders.
That’s the concern critics are raising ahead of Aug. 1, when the U.S. will allow plans for the “Liberator” plastic pistol to be posted online for anyone to download. The previously banned weapon can be made using a nail, a bullet, and a 3D printer, and is said to be untraceable and invisible to metal detectors.
These so-called “ghost guns” are a potential nightmare for law enforcement, especially for countries outside the U.S. where the release is coming as a surprise.
Plans for the American-designed gun were originally posted online in 2013, but the U.S. State Department ordered them to be taken down on the grounds that they might be used to make weapons outside the United States.
WATCH: 3D-printed gun blueprint creator Cody Wilson explains why he wants to post instructions online
The Trump administration reversed that decision last month, in an unexpected settlement allowing designer Cody Wilson to publish the plans on his company’s website.
“The age of the downloadable gun formally begins,” Wilson’s company, Defense Distributed, wrote on its website.
However, it remains to be seen what that “age” will look like, especially since the settlement does not restrict Wilson from sharing the plans with non-Americans on the internet.
WATCH: U.S. will be ‘biggest exporter of terror if we fail to stop ghost guns’: Blumenthal
What is the Liberator?
Wilson successfully demonstrated his Liberator weapon in a YouTube video in 2013, sparking a flurry of interest and outrage over the design.
Every component of Wilson’s Liberator is plastic, except for the nail used as a firing pin to launch the bullet.
Approximately 100,000 users downloaded the plans within just a few days in 2013, before Wilson was forced to remove them from his website.
Plans for the gun continue to circulate on various file-sharing sites across the internet.
WATCH BELOW: Cody Wilson demonstrates the Liberator
Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Critical Making Lab successfully printed their own version of the controversial gun in 2013, but kept it under lock and key and never fired it.
An anonymous Canadian man, who identified himself only as “Matt,” claimed to have made the first 3D-printed plastic rifle in August of 2013. He fired 14 rounds in a YouTube demonstration at the time, which has since been removed.
Wilson is also expected to post plans on Aug. 1, for a 3D-printed AR-15 rifle, the same weapon used in several recent U.S. mass shootings. The weapon will be made from plastic and aluminum, using a high-tech printer sold by Wilson’s company.
Wilson did not respond to a Global News query about potentially restricting design downloads to users in the United States.
Is it dangerous?
Gun safety advocates in the U.S. argue the Liberator and other “ghost guns” present an attractive option for terrorists and criminals, because they can be smuggled through metal detectors into sensitive areas such as airports and schools. They’re also untraceable because they don’t have serial numbers.
“There is a market for these guns and it’s not just among enthusiasts and hobbyists,” said Nick Suplina, managing director for law and policy at the New York City-based Everytown Gun Safety organization. Suplina’s group is one of three advocacy organizations trying to block the release of the Liberator plans.
However, the current design is fairly brittle and inefficient.
WATCH BELOW: What you need to know about 3D printing
The Liberator only fires one bullet before it needs to be reloaded, making it a poor choice for a potential mass shooting. The plastic components are also known to melt after firing the first few bullets.
“It’s not a good gun,” said Dr. ginger coons, who worked on the U of T project as a PhD student in 2013. Coons, who does not capitalize her name, is now a design researcher based in the Netherlands.
She says Wilson, a self-professed libertarian, was trying to test the Second Amendment with the original design.
“It’s more of a thought experiment than a gun,” coons told Global News.
She added that the weapon must be made with a high-end printer and special plastic to function properly, and that printing a Liberator with a low-end printer would be dangerous.
“It would probably blow up,” coons said.
She suggests it would be cheaper to build a gun from scratch using materials from the hardware store.
Canadian 3D-printing expert Kerry Stevenson says hobbyists have been tinkering with plastic gun designs for years, but most tend to be costly and fragile.
“You can make a shot or two,” Stevenson, editor of the Fabbaloo enthusiast blog, told Global News reporter Abigail Bimman. “It’s just not a practical weapon.”
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives posted a test video of Wilson’s Liberator design in 2013, in which the gun can be seen disintegrating into pieces after the first shot.
Is it legal?
Law enforcement agencies around the world have been trying to catch up to the potential threat of 3D-printed guns. The weapons currently fall into a grey area in most countries, because they haven’t been a major factor up until this point.
The RCMP said in 2013 that anyone caught firing a 3D-printed weapon without a proper gun licence would face charges.
The Canadian government put out a request for proposals to study the issue further in 2014, but it’s unclear if that study was ever carried out.
The Ministry of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness did not respond to a Global News request for comment.
Australia has been among the most aggressive countries to police 3D-printed guns under laws that prohibit the manufacture of firearms.
A 30-year-old man was given a six-month suspended sentence last year for making 3D-printed gun parts in Queensland, Australia. Another man is currently facing 12 charges after several of the weapons were allegedly found at his home earlier this month.
In the U.S., gun industry experts say the Liberator is simply a modern-day equivalent of what already is legal and readily available: the ability to assemble your own firearm using traditional materials and methods at home without serial numbers. They argue that 3D-printed firearms won’t be a draw for criminals since the printers needed to make one are wildly expensive and the firearms themselves aren’t very durable.
“Criminals can obviously go out and steal guns or even manufacture quote-unquote real guns, not 3D-printed,” said Larry Keane, executive director of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is based in Connecticut and represents gun manufacturers.
He told The Associated Press that it makes more sense for a criminal to steal a real gun that to pour “tens of thousands of dollars” into the equipment needed to make a plastic one.
“They don’t work worth a damn,” he said.
Robert Spitzer, chairman of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland and an expert on the Second Amendment, warned that while 3D-printed firearms are a novelty now — too expensive to make and too fragile to be used for more than a few shots — technology will soon catch up.
“Their popularity right now is limited,” Spitzer said. “There was interest in the blueprints because they’re sort of exotic and because it’s sort of a taboo thing.”
Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, echoed that sentiment.
“It’s not very practical,” Pratt said.
“This is a very expensive route to go just to get a piece of plastic that will only last a round.”
—With files from Reuters and The Associated Press
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