How 3D Printed Ghost Guns Arm Criminals

Click, print, shoot

Key Takeaways

  • 3D printers are being used to manufacture gun parts and whole firearms that could end up in the hands of extremist groups.
  • In one recent case, a West Virginia man was charged with selling a printed gun part to a member of the white supremacist Boogaloo movement. 
  • Printed guns are just one example of the proliferation of homemade firearms, experts say.
3D printer printing a pistol.
Andrzej Wojcicki / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Extremist groups are taking advantage of the increasing availability of 3D printers to obtain parts for weapons, experts say. 

A recent case in which a West Virginia man was charged with selling printed gun parts illustrates the growing problem. The man allegedly sold a 3D-printed wall hook that could turn a rifle into a fully automatic weapon to a member of a racist group. Guns that are made entirely on printers and firearms assembled from unregistered parts, called "ghost guns," are also drawing extremist buyers, experts say. 

"Weapons that are 3D-printed may be popular with certain groups because they are untraceable and largely unregulated," Adam Skaggs, chief counsel and policy director of the gun control advocacy organization Giffords Law Center, said in an email interview.

"Ghost guns, including 3D printed guns, don’t have a serial number or any markings that would be identifiable to law enforcement, making it harder to solve crimes and easier for traffickers to avoid accountability."

In the West Virginia incident, Timothy Watson was arrested for allegedly selling a 3D-printed wall hook that, when disassembled, was actually a "drop-in auto sear," a plastic part that could turn a legal semi-automatic AR-15 rifle into an illegal machine gun. Investigators say he sold one of the parts to a member of the white supremacist Boogaloo movement.

Who’s Watching?

There are no systems in place to track the frequency with which 3D printer-made guns or gun parts are used in violent crime, Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy, said in an email interview. "Far more common is the growing problem of the use of 'ghost guns'—untraceable firearms that are sold in the form of 'gun kits' that make it very easy to assemble firearms with no background checks or records," he added.

"Ghost guns have been showing up in a growing proportion of guns recovered in crime in the jurisdictions tracking the phenomena, including among individuals connected to or sympathetic to far-right terror groups."

3D plans displayed on a laptop computer with a 3D printer and printed gun laying nearby.
 belekekin / Getty Images

Printed guns are just one example of the proliferation of homemade firearms, Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the nonprofit group Violence Policy Center, said in an email interview.

It is currently legal for an individual to manufacture a gun for personal use, "but this is a huge loophole that is facilitating a boom in homemade guns, including ghost guns (a much more serious problem than 3D-printed guns) and 3D-printed guns," Sugarmann added. 

Former extremist Sammy Rangel says that far-right groups are looking for any technological advantage they can get. He’s the co-founder and executive director of Life After Hate, an organization, founded by former extremists, who are committed to helping people leave the far-right.

"To defend against far-right ideologies, we need to understand that they can and will weaponize technologies and circumstances that may seem innocuous to the majority of us, from social media and 3D printers to our civil rights laws and even COVID," Rangel said in an email interview. 

Far-right groups often turn to printed guns or parts when they don’t want their purchases noticed, experts say. Many extremist groups "have violent designs and intentions, and manufacturing key parts on their own is a way to avoid detection and interdiction by law enforcement," Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at SUNY Cortland who researches gun violence, said in an email interview.

Making a whole firearm with a printer is possible but it still faces technical challenges, experts say. The guns that are produced in printers are usually unreliable.

"While it is still difficult to make a complete firearm using a 3D printer without access to sophisticated and expensive 3D printers, this case demonstrates that more accessible technology can easily be used now to make dangerous gun parts and accessories, such as bump stocks and silencers," Chelsea Parsons, vice president of gun violence prevention at the public policy nonprofit Center for American Progress, said in an email interview. 

Stop the Printers

The tech industry needs to do more to prevent printers from being used for weapons, some gun control advocates say. In September 2018, more than 30 mayors sent a letter to the leading manufacturers of 3D printers asking them to take steps to prevent their technology from being used to manufacture guns.

In 2018, Sculpteo banned 3D printing of guns, and Materialise launched a feature to prevent its printers from being used to produce guns.

A woman admires a 3D printed handgun which was created and fired by Finnish journalist Ville Vaarne and which is displayed in the exhibition '3D: printing the future' in the Science Museum
Oli Scarff / Getty Images 

"This is similar to an approach taken by the industry to prevent sophisticated printing technology from being used to counterfeit money," Parsons said. "While we need to also strengthen the laws regarding making untraceable guns at home, going directly to the industry for a solution may be a more expedient approach."

The ATF should subject ghost guns and 3D printed guns to the same regulations as traditional firearms bought at brick and mortar gun stores, Skaggs said. The Giffords Law Center has filed a lawsuit to force the ATF to do this, and in Congress, legislation has been introduced to do the same.

Multiple states, most recently Rhode Island, have passed legislation to regulate and combat ghost guns. "Legislation to combat ghost guns would ensure a background check before anyone can obtain a firearm, whether buying one fully finished or building it yourself, from 3D printed parts or otherwise," Skaggs added. 

Politics has played a role in blocking legislation that would regulate 3D printed firearms, observers say. The Obama administration succeeded in court in blocking the dissemination of blueprints on the internet for making 3D weapons, Spitzer said. "But the Trump administration halted that process, dismissed its suit against the person circulating the blueprints, and even paid him some money."

The threat from 3D-printed guns is likely to increase as these types of printers get more sophisticated. The main reason that 3D printed guns haven’t been a bigger problem than they are is that the plastic components they produce are not as durable as traditional metal or polymer components, so they break down more often, Skaggs said.

"Ghost guns, including 3D printed guns, don’t have a serial number or any markings that would be identifiable to law enforcement."

"Of course, a 3D-printed plastic gun that can be smuggled through a metal detector can still do great damage even if it breaks down after being fired once or twice," Skaggs added. "But as 3D printing technology and materials become more durable and sturdy, the threat they pose will only grow."

The kind of high-tech printers that allow the manufacture of high-quality firearms is prohibitively expensive for most members of far-right groups, some observers say. "While a lot of the politics involves the far-right 3D printing their firearms, for practitioners in the field of criminal activity, the actual concern is gang activity and organized crime," Matt Pinsker, an adjunct professor of homeland security and criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in an email interview.

"For the foreseeable future, they're likely to be the only ones who can afford the exorbitant costs of the technology at this time and would have the profit motive to sell them to others. Unlike federally licensed firearms dealers, they won't be doing background checks."

As home 3D printing technology gets more sophisticated, it will be harder than ever to keep criminals from obtaining firearms. Of course, with 40% of Americans saying someone in their household owns a gun, the real problem may be in printing guns that can’t be traced or parts that are illegal.

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