Destroying the Biggest 3D Gun Myths
In 2016, TSA agents confiscated a plastic 3D printed gun from a carry on bag in Las Vegas, Nevada. The gun was non-functional and was accompanied by a handful of low caliber ammunition. The owner of the gun said he had forgotten about it and left it with TSA in exchange for his freedom.
This was TSA’s first 3D printed gun confiscation, but it wouldn’t be the last. Since these types of weapons first became a reality in 2013, they have been making the news.
Those who want to restrict gun rights say 3D printed guns mean gun control laws should be even tighter since more avenues to possession are being invented. At the same time, those of us who know better have argued that gun controllers are just sticking their fingers in a dam.
Opponents of 3D printed gun technology argue that these guns are untraceable and that they can be made anywhere by anyone. But this is not exactly true.
3D gun printing technology is not cheap. It’s not the sort of thing common street criminals are likely to have the money or the patience to set up and work with. You don’t just log on to guns.net.com, click on an exciting looking gun, hit enter and print it out. Although, that’s what opponents of the technology seem to believe.
In order to create a plastic gun, a person has to leave behind a huge paper trail. You have to buy a very serious 3D printer. These are large and expensive. Then you have to obtain the digital blueprint for the gun you want. You have to buy the 3D printing medium- the plastic resin these things are rendered in. Then, if you want a functional plastic version of a viable semi-automatic firearm- you need to obtain certain metal parts from a gun manufacturer- like the lower receiver for an AR-15, for example.
All of these purchases leave a massive trail of evidence that would lead authorities straight to the door of anyone who wanted to use a 3D printed gun for nefarious reasons.
Opponents of 3D printed guns also complain that serial numbers can’t be etched permanently into the frame. If it is, it can be easily removed.
As you probably know, possessing a gun with its serial number removed is a serious crime. And removing the serial number from a steel gun is just a matter of using a stronger tool. If plastic guns were required to have serial numbers, it would be essentially the same as it is with traditional weapons.
Now, a chemistry team from the University of Mississippi is developing additional ways to trace 3D printed guns. Their idea is that the polymers used to create the guns have their own particular chemical profile, a profile which can be traced.
James Cizdziel, an associate professor at the University of Mississippi, says, “We can positively identify the type of polymer used in the construction of the gun from flecks or smears of plastic on bullets, cartridge cases and in gunshot residue collected on clothing.”
That’s saying a lot. It means if this method of identification were to become the norm, that 3D printed guns would not only be able to be traced- but they would be far more traceable than conventional guns.
Every time a gun is fired, the process of containing and directing the small explosion results in all kinds of material being ripped from the body of the weapon. In the case of traditional steel guns, no one’s ever thought about using trace residue from the body of the gun to identify its manufacturer in the absence of the actual weapon.
But plastic guns are a different story. They are nowhere near as resilient as steel guns, and consequently, they leave behind a lot more material.
This material can be gathered by forensic teams to determine the point of purchase for the polymer used to make the gun. From there, it’s just a matter of tracking down everyone who bought that particular polymer from that particular seller during a specific period of time.
The technique would identify the manufacturer of the polymer and its age. This would enable investigators to track the owner down to their place of residence at the time the polymer was purchased.
In the end analysis, plastic guns are actually far easier to trace than steel guns. And in all the hubbub, no one seems to notice that better guns can be made by converting antique designs- and there’s no FFL. But that’s a topic for another day.