The Legal Ambiguity of the 3D Printer That Builds Guns

October 13, 2014

12:00 pm

You know the old saying gun control advocates use when someone suggests the world would be better off if firearms were completely outlawed? It usually goes something like: “If owning a gun is illegal, then only criminals will have guns.” Well, pretty soon that might change to: “If owning a gun is illegal, then everyone will build their own guns.”

No, there hasn’t been a distinct rise in the amount of metal forging furnaces sold or a spike in blacksmithing self-education. What’s changed has been a lot simpler and a lot more accessible. Anyone with $1,200 and a personal computer now has the ability to use a little black box called a milling machine to create homemade gun parts.

The computer numerically controlled (CNC) mill that’s getting all of the attention these days is the brainchild of Cody Wilson. Last year, Wilson used a 3D printer to create the world’s first 3D printed gun. But that piece was made of plastic; Wilson’s new CNC mill, which he has dubbed the Ghost Gunner, is churning out metal parts.

And not just any metal part. For $1,200 you can buy the Ghost Gunner and have the ability to create the lower receiver of an AR-15. If you’re not up on your assault rifle anatomy, the lower receiver is not some sort of decorative element you toss on your rifle to make it look better than your neighbor’s.

The lower receiver is actually the keystone piece of the AR-15; it connects the barrel, magazine, and stock. All other pieces of the gun are available for purchase with no background check required, making a lower receiver with no serial number the foundation for building an untraceable rifle.

If this sounds illegal, well, that’s because it kind of is. Making your own legal receiver with no serial number is actually completely legal, but selling them on the open market is not. People have gotten around this in the past by selling receivers that aren’t 80% completely built.

The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has made it illegal to sell lower receivers that are <80% finished, so makers would sell them with a few spots that still needed to be carved out to fall under that threshold. With the advent of the Ghost Gunner though, people can now make as many 100% completed lower receivers as they want.

The man behind this new movement, Cody Wilson, isn’t as much of a black market arms dealer as he is a brazen libertarian. Sure, there’s evidence that John Zawahri used an AR-15 made with a <80% lower receiver to murder five people last year, but Wilson is more bothered by the government encroaching on his rights than he is by the threat of some lone lunatics.

“I believe it’s in the stable of popular rights afforded to the people, a republican ideal consistent with civil liberties,” he says. “You can have an unserialized toothbrush, and you can have an unserialized rifle. This is important to me. The untraceable firearm is my stand.”

In fact, he seems to take the most satisfaction from the idea of how much this will bother politicians who favor the regulation of firearms. “This is a way to jab at the bleeding hearts of these total statists,” Wilson says. “It’s about humiliating the power that wants to humiliate you.” A bold move, to be sure. Wilson could have used this technology to help people build replacement car components to save money on trips to the mechanic, or any number of other household items. But that’s too easy. He wants to make a statement.

Naturally, those “bleeding hearts” he spoke of aren’t exactly taking this lying down. California state senator Kevin de Leon introduced a bill this year referred to as the “Ghost Gun Ban” that would have criminalized 3D printing or finishing an <80% lower receiver without a government-assigned serial number. The bill actually made it through the senate and assembly, but Jerry Brown, the governor of California, ultimately vetoed the bill because he didn’t see a connection between sticking a serial number on homemade guns and public safety.

And Brown just might have a point. The more widespread the technology behind the Ghost Gunner becomes, the more futile it will be to try to regulate who can have firearms and who can’t. Wilson obviously sees this as nothing but the fullest manifestation of a person’s legal right not to have property infringed upon by the government.

Most agree, though, that some people – the mentally ill, convicted criminals – should not have free and easy access to machines designed to kill. It seems like it’s about to get a lot easier for them to do so.

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Daniel Faris lives in Harrisburg, PA. He is a graduate from the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University and now spends his time blogging about politics.

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