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    The ATF Has Yet to Be Convinced That 3D-Printed Guns Compare to the Real Thing

    Written by

    Adam Clark Estes

    An unnamed Defense Distributed supporter tests out an iteration of the group's lower receiver, which is the translucent part of the rifle above.

    Around the same time that Cody Wilson took the stage at SXSW to discuss his new for-profit 3D-printing design database earlier this month, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was finalizing his application to become a federally-licensed firearms manufacturer. Wilson stood in front of the crowd and talked about how everyone should have access to technology that made it easy for them to print gun parts in their garages.

    He talked about Defense Distributed, the organization he and some friends set up to offer 3D-printed gun designs to the masses for free through a website called DEFCAD, and finally addressed the government's role in the manufacture of firearms. "I'm not soliciting help from the government," he said. 

    "We are trying to follow the law as it is now and be good citizens," Wilson added. "I don't view government as a benign institution."

    Well, the government doesn't seem entirely sure what to think of Wilson's own institution. I talked to a number of ATF representatives, all of whom sent a similar message: 3D-printed gun technology has arrived, but it's not good enough yet to start figuring out how to regulate it.

    "We are aware of all the 3D printing of firearms and have been tracking it for quite a while," Earl Woodham, spokesperson for the ATF field office in Charlotte, told me. "Our firearms technology people have looked at it, and we have not yet seen a consistently reliable firearm made with 3D printing."

    Wilson demonstrating one of the 3D printer models Defense Distributed uses.

    I called the ATF's Washington headquarters to get a better idea of what it took to make a gun "consistently reliable," and program manager George Semonick said the guns should be "made to last years or generations." In other words, because 3D-printed guns aren't yet as durable as their metal counterparts, the ATF doesn't yet consider them as much of a concern.

    Aside from long-term durability, it's difficult to understand the difference between a regular gun and a 3D-printed gun in the ATF's eyes. Defense Distributed's gun can fire off hundreds of rounds in one sitting. Doesn't that seem pretty consistent? Plus, when a part fails, the owner can always just print a new one. That also means development is relatively cheap.

    When I pressed him about the difference between that gun and one you'd buy in a gun store, Woodham replied matter-of-factly, "The difference is knowing your life depends on a gun — when someone breaks into your house — which one do you grab? The one that you 3D-printed or the one you bought from the manufacturer?"

    A gun utilizing 3D-printed parts is every bit as lethal as a traditional gun, and their development is moving forward rapidly.

    That's a strong point, especially to your average, legal gun owner, for whom 3D-printed gun parts aren't yet as useful or reliable as a traditional, metal firearm. But that point still doesn't change the fact that a gun utilizing 3D-printed parts is every bit as lethal as a traditional gun, and their development is moving forward rapidly.

    Now, it must be made very clear that the ATF is not a policy-making organization. Congress makes the gun laws, and the ATF enforces them. There is at least one member of Congress, Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who wants to ban high-capacity 3D-printed magazines under the Undetectable Firearms Act. Otherwise, the 3D-printed gun business is looking at an open road.

    Under current firearms laws, it's completely legal to manufacture all parts of a gun except for the gun's receiver, which is the part that generally houses all of its working parts, like the trigger group. You can buy an AR-15 barrel online if you want, but the receiver is what's considered the "gun" under the law, and thus it's the part that has a gun's serial number and is what is technically regulated by federal and state laws. That means the receiver is the cornerstone of both a working firearm as well as firearms regulation.

    Wilson shows off the CAD software he uses to refine his lower receiver design.

    This is why 3D printing receivers, like Defense Distributed is doing, represents such a large wrinkle to the gun control debate. It's possible to make a receiver, but even if you're skilled at working with metal and have a complete set of gunsmithing tools, it still takes a lot of experience and individual product testing.

    Thus the average Joe buys guns off the shelf, with its serial number stamped and recorded according to local laws. At the same time, because gunsmithing has such a high barrier to entry, the vast majority make sure their work is registered and above-board, lest all that time spent learning the craft be wasted.

    As such, gun regulation–and thus the laws the ATF has to work with–focuses far more on the acquisition of manufactured firearms, not their production by private citizens, who generally don't have the ability to make a gun anyway. But if you want to make a 3D-printed receiver (and now magazines as well), all you have to do is get your hands on a printer–which are expensive but becoming much cheaper–and one of the CAD files on Wilson's website–which are all free.

    Producing a gun part that once required a lot of smithing experience can now be printed by anyone with access to the web and a moderately high-end 3D printer.

    Load it up, hit print and a few hours later, you could have a fully functional–if not overly durable–lower receiver of an AR-15, and the rest of the parts are easy to acquire. While Defense Distributed is a legally licensed gun manufacturer, it's made it so that just about anyone can produce the one part of a rifle that's legally regulated.

    In other words, producing what once required a lot of smithing experience–something the average person has neither the time or means to acquire–can now be printed by anyone with access to the web and a moderately high-end 3D printer. And despite ongoing speculation in the media, 3D printing guns is legal. More importantly, considering the design files have already been disseminated throughout the web, banning 3D-printed gun parts wouldn't do much to stop their manufacture.

    Despite what the ATF says, these 3D-printed guns have gotten pretty good, too. YouTube is full of proof. At the end of February, Wilson and friends posted a video of an AR-15 rifle, the most popular rifle in America, firing over 600 rounds through 3D-printed parts

    Asked about Wilson's latest YouTube video showing 3D-printed parts surviving hundreds of rounds, the ATF's Woodham stood firm. "Now that someone has clearly, in their words, been able to shoot over 600 rounds, the material is clearly getting better," he said. "It's still the ATF's stance that we have not seen a consistently reliable firearm." 

    Motherboard's documentary on Wilson's efforts in the 3D-printed gun world.

    If Diane Feinstein's gun control bill makes it through Congress, both the rifle and the massive magazine that feeds it in that test would be outlawed. In fact, the Defense Distributed site, DEFCAD, is full of parts that may soon be banned in the United States.

    Five months ago, Cody Wilson went to the ATF field office in Austin to inquire about potential legal issues surrounding his newfound project to build a gun using 3D-printed parts. At that time, the ATF wasn't quite sure what to do. Wilson told Wired that ATF officials questioned him and said that he'd need to get a license if he wanted to build said 3D-printed gun. 

    That was before Wilson had even found a 3D printer to run his so-called Wiki Weapons Project, then considered an ambitious plan to put a free library of CAD designs for gun parts that people could print at home, effectively making a gunsmith out of anybody with access to a 3D printer and a computer.

    At this point in time, Defense Distributed has, in fact, built and successfully tested several functional firearms with 3D-printed parts. It's also designed, printed and tested a high capacity magazine that it nicknamed the "Cuomo," after New York's pro-gun control governor. The guns work, some better than others, built by a group of guys who didn't know anything about 3D printing when they started the Wiki Weapons project.

    As this point in time, the ATF is well aware of what's going on, but as it's legal for a private citizen to make his or her own gun, the Bureau's hands are fairly tied until the 3D-printed gun parts become a higher national priority.

    "The ATF's chief of technology has known about it for about a year," Semonick said. "With the growing trend, individuals can make their own firearms as long as they're not selling them," he said.

    While Woodham's definition of a "reliable, consistently functioning firearm" is open to interpretation, everyone seems to agree the age of the 3D-printed gun is upon us.

    Indeed, it is a trend. Wilson isn't the only one building 3D-printed guns. In fact, he likely got turned on to the idea when some amateur gunsmiths started to get enthusiastic about the technology and shared success stories in online forums. Those bubbled up to the national media last summer, just a few weeks before Wilson emerged with his plan for Defense Distributed.

    While Woodham's definition of a "reliable, consistently functioning firearm" is open to interpretation, everyone seems to agree that the age of the 3D-printed gun is upon us. Evidently, we'll have to wait a few design generations before the ATF takes the technology as seriously as it does all-metal guns.

    In fact, it will take a few years for this technology to become truly widespread. Like I said earlier, 3D printers and the material they use to construct objects are expensive. It's probably cheaper to go to the gun store. The printer itself, for instance, will cost at least $2,000. The polymer spools that serve as the ink jet cartridges, so to speak, run about $30 a pop. Including startup costs and failed attempts, 3D printing a lower receiver could cost over two grand. A used AR-15 would be less than half that. This might explain why the ATF is playing it cool for now.

    It's easy to be scared about the unknown but much harder to act upon it. Again, since the ATF doesn't make policy decisions, their hands are more or less tied when it comes to regulating this new technology. This is the new technology in terms of gun-making, however, and they're quick to admit it. "Right now, it's only the 3D printing, and the ATF continues to monitor the industry," Semonick said. "Right now, this is the newest technology thing out there."

    As unnerving as it sounds after watching his crazy YouTube videos, it's up to folks like Cody Wilson to decide what happens next. Will this new technology become integrated into the larger, more organized and regulated world of regular firearms sales? Or will it branch off into its own new and unchecked territory? Either way, it's not going away any time soon.