Draw, print, bang

This is interesting — a working handgun produced by a 3D printer. “I’m seeing a world where technology says you can pretty much be able to have whatever you want. It’s not up to the political players anymore,” said Cody Wilson, the head of the Texas-based outfit which made the weapon. Cue Shock! Horror! reactions. For example:

Defense Distributed plans to make the blueprints for the almost entirely plastic firearm (only the firing pin is metal) available online, worrying political players including Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who on Sunday reportedly called the possibility of mass production of untraceable weapons “stomach-churning.” Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., last month introduced the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act, which would extend the ban on non-detectable weapons and add language concerning 3D-printed guns. “Security checkpoints, background checks and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print their own plastic firearms at home and bring those firearms through metal detectors with no one the wiser,” Israel said in a statement, according to the New York Daily News. Wilson has said before that he views Defense Distributed’s project as “vital” and a censorship issue.

So is this an example of technological determinism gone mad? Well, maybe. But Alex Hern’s piece in the Guardian takes a more measured stance.

The Liberator is a more serious prospect. All of the necessary parts can be printed from a 3D printer except for the metal firing pin, which is made from a single nail. (In order to comply with US laws, the gun as produced also has a 175g chunk of steel inside it, so that it doesn’t evade metal detectors). It is a fullblown gun, and recognisably so.

But technologically, it’s still simple. That’s because the principle behind a gun isn’t too tricky: load a bullet into a reinforced tube, and whack the back of it hard. That’s an engineering problem street gangs in the 1950s managed to solve with wood, antenna housings and elastic bands, building “zip guns” to shoot at each other; and it’s also the basis for converted air rifles and cap guns. The difficult stuff – getting it to fire accurately, repeatedly and without jamming or blowing up in your face – is still a long way off for 3D printers. And even the best 3D-printed gun still relies on someone else to make the gunpowder.