Untraceable 3D-printed guns 'unstoppable' despite Philadelphia law, court action

Web forums dedicated to keeping files 'alive indefinitely'

Ian Bush
August 01, 2018 - 3:48 pm
It takes less than a minute after a simple search on the open internet to download gigabytes worth of files marked "AR-15," "M16" and many more, all ready to send to a 3D printer or CNC machine.

Ian Bush | KYW Newsradio


PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The fight over 3D-printed firearms will be back in federal court next week, after a judge temporarily blocked the release of blueprints for so-called "ghost guns." Years ago, Philadelphia launched a pre-emptive strike, but these and other efforts have failed to dull the momentum online.

City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson led the charge in 2013 for Philadelphia's ban on using a 3D printer to make firearms and parts.

"We tried to get something right when it comes to keeping guns out of the hands of those who commit mass shootings as well as acts of terrorism," he said.

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The law was the first of its kind.

"I'm all for freedom of speech," he continued, "but I'm also for people having the right not to be shot."

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal calls the recent legal decisions to keep 3D-printed gun blueprints from being posted online "big wins for the safety of our residents and for the safety of our law enforcement officers."

He added it is not an issue freedom of speech.

"What we're trying to do is stop someone from giving out codes that at the click of a button allow someone to make and print out a dangerous assault rifle, as an example," he said. "That's not speech, that's deadly conduct."

New Jersey and Pennsylvania joined several other states in lawsuits against Defense Distributed and owner Cody Wilson.

Grewal is confident state and federal judges will keep the blueprints from being posted online.

"I will not back down on public safety. I'll do everything in my power as attorney general to keep these untraceable — and also undetectable, because they can get through metal detectors — out of the hands of terrorists and criminals," he added.

But the freedom of speech flag has been waving on a web forum for enthusiasts of make-your-own firearms, where one member calls the designs "files of shapes." They are "knowledge, engineering, and art (sic)," the member wrote during a chat. "They are files, not guns. You can't download a gun. You can't ban shapes. It would be like banning books."

Despite the recent interest — and resulting court chaos — in the plan by Defense Distributed to make blueprints available for download, forum participants say they first released files in 2012 and have been improving them ever since. 

It takes less than a minute after a simple search on the open internet to download gigabytes worth of files marked "AR-15," "M16" and many more, all ready to send to a 3D printer or CNC machine.

All-plastic guns are illegal, but makers get around that federal law — and extend the durability and life of the gun — by adding a metal part, like a barrel, which is simple to manufacture using an inexpensive drill press. 

Several web forum members spoke in colorful terms of the pitfalls of 3D-printed plastic barrels:

"We only do them because we can."

"Plastic for barrels is asking for catastrophic self-harm."

On the forum, they discuss other methods for making firearms, such as mold casting, and hardy materials like polyether ether ketone (PEEK) as a high-performance substitute for traditional ABS plastic in 3D printers.

"We use the Streisand effect and mirror our files all over the internet," one member wrote, "to keep the files alive indefinitely."