A plastic gun made on a 3D printer has been successfully fired. What's more, its developer has released the blueprints online, meaning anyone with the right 3D printer can create a gun of their own, right in their living room. Say hello to the dark side of the maker movement.
This past weekend (May 4), the controversial group Defense Distributed successfully tested the new firearm at a firing range south of Austin, Texas. Called the "Liberator", it took a year to develop. In response, anti-gun campaigners have condemned the project, while a number of law enforcement agencies have started to monitor developments.
The Defense Distributed video notes that the pistol can be "downloaded today." As of this posting, the CAD files for the firearm's 15 printable components are freely available for download on DEFCAD, the 3D-blueprint repository for "misfit objects" operated by Defense Distributed. The Liberator's download link calls up a .ZIP folder containing .STL files for the gun's various components. 3D-printing expert Joseph Flaherty tells io9 that ".STL files can be used by any 3-D printer," after being converted into 3D-printer-friendly file formats – like .GCODE – by any number of freely available software packages, known as "slicers." Translation: with the right equipment, you can download and print a 100% operational handgun. Today.
Defense Distributed says it's aiming to "defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms" through "information and knowledge related to the 3D printing of arms." The company is headed by Cody Wilson, a 25-year-old law student at the University of Texas who describes himself as a "crypto-anarchist." For Wilson, the issue is "about liberty."
The BBC recently spoke to him:
"There is a demand of guns - there just is. There are states all over the world that say you can't own firearms - and that's not true anymore.
"I'm seeing a world where technology says you can pretty much be able to have whatever you want. It's not up to the political players any more."
Asked if he felt any sense of responsibility about whose hands the gun might fall into, he told the BBC: "I recognise the tool might be used to harm other people - that's what the tool is - it's a gun.
"But I don't think that's a reason to not do it - or a reason not to put it out there."
Nearly all the parts of the Liberator can be made with a 3D printer, except for the metal firing pin which is made from a single nail. In order for the gun to comply with U.S. law, it must be embedded with a 175 g piece of steel so that it can be picked up by metal detectors.
Writing in the Guardian, Alex Hearn says we probably shouldn't overreact:
But technologically, it's still simple. That's because the principle behind a gun isn't too tricky: load a bullet into a reinforced tube, and whack the back of it hard. That's an engineering problem street gangs in the 1950s managed to solve with wood, antenna housings and elastic bands, building "zip guns" to shoot at each other; and it's also the basis for converted air rifles and cap guns. The difficult stuff – getting it to fire accurately, repeatedly and without jamming or blowing up in your face – is still a long way off for 3D printers. And even the best 3D-printed gun still relies on someone else to make the gunpowder.
The fuss around the printing of guns shows the real impact 3D printing will have on our daily lives. By expanding the realm of "digital" goods into the physical world, it extends the questions we've been struggling with when it comes to the internet – how to control the instructions for hacking copy-protection, encrypting files or making bombs (those last instructions apparently followed by the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston to lethal effect) – to a whole new area...
...Ultimately, trying to pin down whether 3D printing is good or bad is like trying to answer the same question for the internet, telephones or the postal service. Some livelihoods will be transformed, others ruined; the only constant will be the change it bring.
The timing of this announcement is interesting given that the Cube 3D printer is about to become available for purchase at Staples.