By Friday at noon, photographs of the world’s first 3-D-printed gun published on this site set off a new round of controversy in a story that has shoved one of the most hyped trends in technology into one of the most contentious crossfires in American politics. New York Congressman Steve Israel responded to Defense Distributed’s work by renewing his call for a revamp of the Undetectable Firearms Act, which bans any firearm that doesn’t set off a metal detector. “Security checkpoints, background checks, and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print plastic firearms at home and bring those firearms through metal detectors with no one the wiser,” read a statement sent to me and other reporters.
On Sunday, New York Senator Charles Schumer echoed Israel’s call for that new legislation to ban 3-D-printable guns. “A terrorist, someone who’s mentally ill, a spousal abuser, a felon can essentially open a gun factory in their garage,” Schumer said in a press conference.
Israel and Schumer are hardly the first to oppose Wilson’s gun-printing mission. Last August, Defense Distributed’s fundraising campaign was booted from the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo . In October, 3-D printer maker Stratasys seized a printer leased to the group after it found out how the machine was being used. And Wilson says he’s lost access to two workshop spaces after those renting to him learned about his mission. Instead, Defense Distributed has had to move its workshop to a 38-square-foot room at the southern edge of Austin that’s about the size of a walk-in closet, hardly larger than the refrigerator-sized 3D printer it houses.
But at each roadblock, the group has found a detour. It’s raised funds from donors through the digital currency Bitcoin, which thanks to that crypto-currency’s rising value now accounts for 99 per cent of Defense Distributed’s assets, according to Wilson. In March it received a federal license to manufacture firearms, which Wilson has framed and posted on the wall of the group’s miniscule workshop. And it’s complied with the Undetectable Firearms Act by inserting a six ounce chunk of non-functional steel into the body of the Liberator, which makes it detectable with a metal detector – Wilson spent $400 on a walk-through model that he’s installed at the workshop’s door for testing. “Our strategy is overcompliance,” he says. (There’s no guarantee, of course, that anyone who downloads and prints the Liberator will insert the same chunk of detectable steel.)
The group’s initial success in testing the Liberator may now silence some of its technical naysayers, too. Many skeptics (include commenters on this blog) have claimed that no plastic gun could ever handle the pressure and heat of detonating an ammunition cartridge without deforming or exploding. But Defense Distributed’s design has done just that. After the test-firing I witnessed, Wilson showed me a video of an ABS plastic barrel the group printed attached to a non-printed gun body firing ten rounds of .380 ammunition before breaking on the eleventh.
Even Wilson himself says he’s not sure exactly how that’s possible. But one important trick may be the group’s added step of treating the gun’s barrel in a jar of acetone vaporized with a pan of water and a camp stove, a process that chemically melts its surface slightly and smooths the bore to avoid friction. The Dimension printer Defense Distributed used also keeps its print chamber heated to 167 degrees Fahrenheit, a method patented by Stratasys that improves the parts’ resiliency.
Defense Distributed’s goal is to eventually adapt its method to work on cheaper printers, too, like the $2,200 Replicator sold by Makerbot or the even cheaper, open-source RepRap. Even if a barrel is deformed after firing, Defense Distributed has designed the Liberator to use removable barrels that can be swapped in and out in seconds.
Wilson hasn’t shied from the growing controversy around his project. The Sandy Hook, Connecticut massacre in which a lone gunman killed twenty children and six adults only increased his sense of urgency to circumvent the anticipated wave of gun control laws. As Congress mulled limits on ammunition magazines larger than ten rounds, Defense Distributed created 3D-printable 30-round magazines for AR-15 and AK-47 rifles. In March, it released a YouTube video of a 3-D-printable AR-15 lower receiver that can fire hundreds of rounds without failing. The lower receiver is the regulated body of the gun. Anyone who prints it can skirt gun laws and order the rest of the weapon’s parts by mail.