Depending who you ask, the widespread release of downloadable blueprints for 3D-printed guns would be either an unmitigated disaster or a giant nothing burger.
Congressional Democrats and gun safety groups say giving Texas-based digital firearms nonprofit Defense Distributed free rein to publish those files would lead to an influx of untraceable plastic, or mostly plastic, firearms, both in the U.S. and abroad. The weapons would undermine gun laws and threaten public safety, they say, serving as ideal tools for people legally barred from purchasing guns, or for would-be terrorists looking to sneak them into secured areas. A federal judge appeared sympathetic to those concerns this week, issuing a restraining order temporarily blocking further downloads of the blueprints ― but not before Defense Distributed published schematics for seven firearms.
The National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates, meanwhile, have sought to downplay the controversy. They argue that 3D-printed gun blueprints are already available online, and that disseminating them further should be allowed as free speech. In the NRA’s only official statement on the matter, one of the group’s executive directors dismissed fears about a rise in undetectable plastic firearms, arguing that such guns are illegal under a 1988 law.
It was an awkward claim, coming from an organization that fundamentally opposes most gun restrictions with the argument that gun laws don’t work. It also offers little insight into why the NRA supports expanding the ecosystem of homemade 3D-printed firearms, which some say may eventually cut into the profits of the NRA’s gun-manufacturer allies.
We reached out to the NRA hoping to clarify, but no one responded. So, we took a closer look at the group’s possible motivations. The NRA’s stance on 3D-printed guns, we found, meshes perfectly with the organization’s ethos.
There are two ways to understand this harmony. On the surface are the NRA’s outward-facing arguments, which spokeswoman Dana Loesch and other NRA supporters have rallied behind in recent days. But below that is a darker, more discreet logic that unites Defense Distributed and the NRA in a broader campaign to undermine gun control efforts.
Publicly, the NRA’s argument raises reasonable points. Contrary to what some lawmakers describe, you can’t just beep-boop a few codes into a conventional 3D printer and come away with a fully functional plastic AR-15. Nor can you easily print out lethal plastic bullets. The technology isn’t there, at least not yet.
Gunsmithing is a complicated process, regardless of the methods and tools you’re using. A 3D printer may make it a bit easier, but models capable of fabricating a usable gun cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
Making a homemade gun is completely legal under federal law, provided it’s not for sale and the maker is not otherwise prohibited from possessing firearms. So, there’s nothing inherently illegal about attempting to replicate one of the Defense Distributed blueprints ― so long as people don’t remove the small, and in some cases nonfunctional metal pieces that make them compliant with a 1988 federal law banning undetectable weapons.
Pair these facts with the ease of obtaining a real gun in the U.S. ― legally or illegally ― and it’s fair to wonder how quickly 3D-printed guns might become a viable choice for criminals.
“If the plans were completely available online tomorrow, it’s not as though next week we’d start to see a massive crime wave of shootings with these weapons,” said Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland who’s written five books on gun policy.
So yes, Dana Loesch, congressional lawmakers have made some hyperbolic, uninformed claims in their push against 3D-printed firearms. That’s made this issue perfect fodder for the NRA, which maintains that gun policy is driven more by emotion than facts, and that gun control-advocating politicians lie or know nothing about the firearms they want to regulate.
But that’s not why the NRA really cares about 3D-printed guns. At its core, this is a debate about democratizing access to firearms. Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson recently said he views having a gun as a “fundamental human dignity” and “human right.”
In that way, Defense Distributed and the NRA share a common goal to “press as many guns into as many hands as possible to buttress their constituency,” said Spitzer.
Wilson, a self-described crypto-anarchist, has been clear about his ultimate objective since he launched Defense Distributed in 2012. By working to make guns available to anyone without government approval, he wants to shatter people’s faith in the ability to regulate firearms, dealing a fatal blow to gun control arguments.
This is an open act of subversion not just for Wilson, but for many of the NRA’s supporters who agree with his anti-government views and extreme interpretation of the Second Amendment.
“Much of the NRA’s constituency consists largely of people who are extremely suspicious of government, hostile toward government, and who think that civilians with guns represent some kind of meaningful check against the government,” said Spitzer.
While the NRA itself hasn’t been quite as explicit as Wilson in expressing hopes that printed guns would be a death knell for gun control, “short circuiting gun regulations is still one of their bottom-line goals,” said Spitzer.
Giving Wilson the go-ahead to publish his 3D blueprints ― and allowing him to continue expanding and improving those schematics ― would be a huge symbolic victory for that effort. The NRA and others claim this wouldn’t have much immediate impact. But that would change as technology advances.
“A 3D printer five years from now undoubtedly will be cheaper and better than a 3D printer today, which is undoubtedly is better than one from two or three years ago,” said Spitzer. “Technology works on the side of making it easier and cheaper to get these things over time.”
For Wilson, this refinement would lead to “the promise of a gun” wherever “there’s a computer and an Internet connection,” he told Forbes in 2012.
If that ever becomes a reality, it would likely benefit the NRA.
The gun lobby has long pushed a vision of the world in which anyone could be armed at any time, and in which you need a gun to defend yourself against that constant threat. By inviting the “era of the downloadable gun,” as Defense Distributed has coined it, we’d be one step closer to that dystopian future.
The resulting fear would be a powerful tool not just for the NRA, but for its gun industry benefactors. Professionally manufactured guns will remain superior to 3D-printed ones for the foreseeable future, perhaps forever. Gun companies could, therefore, continue to market their products as higher-quality firearms, necessary to outgun anyone who might be packing a less-reliable plastic gun.
This may all seem a bit speculative. Still, it’s necessary to consider the future implications of a precedent of this magnitude. The NRA would certainly seem to prefer that we don’t, which is why its support for giving Defense Distributed a broad license to publish blueprints for 3D-printed guns is grounded firmly in the present. The technology is still relatively primitive right now, and people are already making homemade weapons without much trouble, so this isn’t worth worrying about, the argument goes.
That kind of circular reasoning is textbook NRA, meant to ensure that we do nothing to address the problem until it’s too late, said Spitzer.
“You go down six months, two years, five years, when these things do start to appear, and then they sort of shrug their shoulders and say you can’t regulate these things, the horse is out of the barn,” said Spitzer. “The public policy question is are these worthy of regulation or even prohibition or restriction in the first place, and if they are, what better time to do it than before they become widely in circulation?”