Late last year, a West Virginia man was sentenced to five years in prison for possession of an unregistered firearm silencer. The silencer was not 3D-printed, but as you will see, it easily could have been. What was 3D-printed were the boxes of AR-15 drop-in auto sears (DIAS), a small piece of plastic that gives handguns and rifles automatic firing capability. The young man was allegedly producing and selling DIAS in his apartment, with nearly 800 of those devices sold to the far-right extremist group, the Boogaloo Bois.
Because the federal government classifies auto sears as machine guns, they are illegal to both own and manufacture. That accounts for why while searching for .STL files with the intent to 3D-print a DIAS, the first two websites I visited indicated that those files were no longer available. I hit paydirt on the third site, although, and had I been so inclined (and owned a 3D printer), I could easily have downloaded the plans, printed a handful of DIAS, and been firing my 9mm Glock on full auto in the desert by this afternoon.
Instead, I spent the next hour seeing what other firearms components I could 3D print at home. There were many. Visual guides for printing a bump stock like the one used in the Las Vegas shooting that took 61 lives came up on my first search. I found silencers, pistol grips for rifles and shotguns, AR-15 lower receivers, magazine couplers and extended magazines, and even single-shot, fully 3D-printed “Liberator” pistols. That was just the polymer parts- all of which can be generated from a printer costing less than a fancy dinner out and a pair of tickets to see the new Top Gun.
Someone with deep enough pockets for a used Desktop Metal or Markforged machine would have far greater capabilities, especially if they’re handy with a Bridgeport and engine lathe. And who knows what parts are now possible to create with a low-cost FDM printer equipped with metal filament? I’ve seen no discussion on that.
I’m a gun owner. In my teens, I took NRA safety lessons before my Dad would take me deer hunting. Some of my fondest memories are of the time spent in camp with friends and family or sitting up in the stand staring down at the majesty of an eight-point buck passing quietly below. However, my interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is far more conservative (I say that in the literal sense) than that of the Boogaloo Bois, Wayne LaPierre, or any member of the political fringes- left or right. That means I interpret “well-regulated militia” quite literally. Having worked with people in the manufacturing industry for more than four decades, I suspect I’m in the minority on this, but what’s most important right now is to discuss the situation and stop taking sides, a statement that applies to many of today’s problems.
Regardless, I’m not writing to discuss gun laws, but rather just 3D printing. My point is elementary: no matter what happens (or more likely, fails to happen) in Washington, D.C., or any of our great country’s state legislatures, the public can now easily bypass any law regarding gun manufacturing. And based on my limited research this morning, there’s no changing that.
The genie, unfortunately, is out of the 3D-printed bottle.
Kip Hanson is a freelance writer and manufacturing consultant with four decades of industry experience, much of that on the shop floor. He’s written six books and more than 1600 magazine articles, covering everything from machining and fabricating to 3D printing, manufacturing software, Industry 4.0, and the Industrial Internet of Things. Kip lives in Tucson, Arizona.