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The Ghosts Haunting the Legal System: 3D-Printed Guns

A burgeoning area of technology, 3D printing, allows companies and hobbyists to make various products at a rapid pace. While some people use it to build such things as scale models of boats or automobiles, others are using it to make 3D-printed guns, which has presented challenges for lawmakers.

Gun enthusiasts can use a computer and 3D printer to design and create functional firearms, which are referred to as “ghost guns” because they are difficult to track. Making guns at home isn’t exactly illegal; people have been doing it for years by purchasing parts from various vendors, but as 3D technology becomes more accessible, state and local governments are scrambling to determine how they can regulate the practice and whether or not they would violate constitutional rights by doing so.

What Is 3D Printing?

The process of printing out a 3D object involves the following steps:

  • Designing an object using special computer software
  • Converting the design to a 3D language
  • Setting up the printer for the object’s specifications
  • Allowing the machine to build the object

The 3D printer uses an additive manufacturing process that stacks layer upon layer of a specific type of material, such as plastic. After a few passes, the object that once existed as 2D on your computer starts to become a tangible thing that you can hold and use.

Do 3D-Printed Guns Work?

If you create a 3D-printed gun at home, you can actually use it to fire a round or two. Technically, they do work, and they can be used to hit a target with a bullet, but because they are typically made out of plastic they don’t function as well as normal guns.

Generally, you can only get out a few shots before the 3D gun malfunctions. Additionally, these types of firearms aren’t made to carry magazines that can be loaded up with ammunition. They have to be manually reloaded after the second or third round.

For many enthusiasts, 3D printed guns are more of a novelty – something to display as opposed to an object to use.

What Are the Legal Issues with 3D-Printed Guns?

Because 3D printed guns don’t have serial numbers and are made at home rather than by a manufacturer that tracks firearm sales, they are usually untraceable. If such a weapon is used to commit a violent crime, such as murder, law enforcement officials would face challenges in trying to identify the owner.

Lawmakers are concerned with keeping the public safe, and with 3D technology, nearly anyone with access to this type of printer could make their own firearm. In some cases, that’s not a problem; however, some people are prohibited by law, such as convicted felons, from owning guns because they pose a risk to society. When a firearm is made through 3D printing, the maker does not have to pass a background check to possess the weapon.

Additionally, 3D-printed guns are generally made out of plastic, which means a person could take one with them undetected into places that require security checks. Under the Undetectable Firearms Act, it’s illegal for a person to own a gun that does not set off metal detectors. Some at-home gun makers will add a piece of metal to their firearm to ensure it’s legal, but the metal section is not something necessary to make the gun work.

Policymakers are seeking ways to regulate 3D gun printing. The difficulty they face is the delicate balance between enacting laws concerning this technology and ensuring a person’s constitutional rights aren’t violated.

For instance, in 2018, a gun enthusiast posted online blueprints for a firearm called “The Liberator.” When the U.S. State Department learned of this, it ordered the man to take the instructions down. He did so but then filed a lawsuit against the government, stating that their demand violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

The government settled that lawsuit, allowing the man to continue posting instructions for the firearm. However, some states, concerned with the mass distribution of 3D printed-guns and public safety risks, filed lawsuits to block the man from sharing the blueprints.

In February of 2019, a bill was introduced in the Illinois House that would add provisions to firearm laws that specifically focus on 3D-printed guns. The measure wouldn’t completely prohibit them (doing so could be seen as a violation of the Second Amendment right to bear arms), but it would make it a criminal offense to have a ghost gun made on a 3D printer and to distribute plans for such weapons without first conducting background checks on individuals seeking to download the instructions.

Contact the Law Office of Steven Fine for Legal Representation

If you were charged with a weapons/gun crime, our attorney is ready to defend your case. We have over 20 years of legal experience and have an extensive understanding of this area of the law.

We will seek to get your charges dropped or the case dismissed. Call us at (312) 436-0638 or contact us online to get started.