3D printers are all fun and games until somebody starts using them to make guns. That’s exactly what an amateur gunsmith who goes by the handle “HaveBlue” has been working on for the past year, and he’s now graduated from building a pistol that successfully fired 200 rounds in testing to assault rifle that looks combat-ready. And the scary thing is that it’s not that hard. HaveBlue simply found the plans for the AR-15, a semiautomatic weapon used by militaries around the world, online and tweaked the file so that his late-model Stratasys printer could read it and then spent about $30 on the ABS plastic feedstock to use as the raw material. Making the gun was almost as easy as hitting PRINT.
It should be made very clear that a fully operational AR-15 did not simply pop out the other end of HaveBlue’s 3D printer. HaveBlue’s design produces just the rifle’s lower receiver, a crucial part of the gun that holds all the other parts together. As he explains in a pair of blog posts about his manufacturing process, HaveBlue had to attach the rest of the gun’s parts, including the trigger, stock and barrel, before it would fire. (Metal parts like the barrel simply couldn’t be replicated with a plastic printer.) Once that was done, HaveBlue went out back and unloaded “magazine after magazine” into the dirt and “decided to call the experiment an overwhelming success.”
What’s kind of nuts about the whole thing is that printing gun parts is totally legal. With the gun control debate raging as fiercely as ever in the wake of the Aurora shootings, there’s no way some random geek could start manufacturing semiautomatic assault rifles in his garage, right? Well, actually, that’s unclear. The specific details of HaveBlue’s AR-15 experiment live in the grey areas of U.S. gun laws, and more generally speaking, 3D printing a gun in the comfort of your own home for your own personal use slides between existing regulations. According to the Gun Control Act of 1968, anybody can manufacture a gun as long as she can legally possess a firearm and isn’t planning on selling it, in which case you’d need a Federal Firearms License (FFL).
Semiautomatic assault rifles are a different story, however. The GCA bans the “manufacture, transfer, or possess a semiautomatic assault weapon” except in very specific circumstances — for example, if it’s an antique weapon or is manually operated. It is possible to get a special license to own one of these guns, though that license is only really necessary if you’re buying the gun from a store. But here’s the totally crazy bit: the only part of the AR-15 that requires a license is the lower receiver, i.e. the part that HaveBlue 3D printed. Nevertheless, assuming that HaveBlue has the necessary license, it doesn’t really matter if he 3D printed the AR-15 part or forged it from steel. But being able to print one at home with plans from the web really helps one circumvent that license law, doesn’t it?
The 3D printing community doesn’t really know what to do with HaveBlue and his 3D printed gun. HaveBlue posted his designs on Thingiverse, the 3D design sharing site run by the guys from Makerbot, and got some push back from the community. Thingiverse’s terms and conditions around posting designs for weapons have changed over the years, but most recently, they’ve decided to discourage not disallow it. “We’ve already been through a few flame wars around what a weapon is,” Makerbot founder Bre Pettis told TechCrunch last year. “Our take is that we’d rather you not upload weapons, but we’re not going to regulate it… unless it’s illegal. Which it isn’t.”
It’s up to the ATF and probably Congress to decide whether or not to look into the issue further. This wouldn’t have been a concern a few years ago when the technology that can build virtually anything out of raw materials with the help of digital models created with computer aided design software cost tens of thousands of dollars. But since the price and availability 3D printers have dropped recently, virtually anybody can own one. As the technology improves, it’ll be possible to print entire guns for the cost of the materials. All hail the Second Amendment, say the gun enthusiasts. The founding fathers never could have imagined this, says everyone else.
Update: HaveBlue reached out to me to clarify a couple of points in the story of his 3D printed gun. Broadly speaking, nothing that HaveBlue did in constructing his AR-15 broke any laws. It was a tough project though. HaveBlue says that 3D printing a gun is much more complicated than uploading a file and hitting print. The file he used as a blueprint needed some tweaking “to strengthen critical areas” and it took a total of 30 hours to do the printing itself. After that came the fine-tuning of the lower receiver itself and, of course, assembly of the gun. And while the AR-15 was originally designed to be an assault rifle, the model that HaveBlue built was not.
But seriously, the thing is totally legal. HaveBlue told me that he doesn’t need a license in his state of residence, and furthermore, gun making is kind of a popular hobby. “Homebuilding a firearm has been done thousands of times before by many other amateur gunsmiths,” he said. “We’re all extremely careful to follow the rules in place, as our continued enjoyment of the hobby relies on a strict adherence to the law. The only thing different in this case is that I merely used a different type of machine rather than the standard mill or lathe.”