Danger in 3-D: The Rapid Spread of Printable Pistols

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It informed him that the company was canceling the lease because Wilson intended to use the 3-D printer to produce weapons. Since he had no license to produce weapons, the letter read, the company was demanding that he return the printer.

Wilson objected, writing that he didn't need a license, because he merely intended to make prototypes for personal use. But the company still sent a team to confiscate the printer.

Teamwork Leads to a Breakthrough

Wilson wrote about it on his website. He didn't know what to do. But a community that was growing by the day, a community of people who wanted to print their own guns.

The community included Brian Bauman, a 10-year veteran of the printing industry, familiar with the idiosyncrasies of many devices and adept at mixing together perfect plastic granulate. Bauman, self-employed, lived a somewhat secluded life in a gated community in the town of Liberty Hill, about an hour's drive from Austin. His printer was in a shed next to the garage. When Wilson paid him a visit, Bauman said that he would help him. He said that he had "strong feelings" about the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which says that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

Other entrepreneurs also contacted Wilson, offering him knowledge and equipment. The first complete weapon made with a printer began to become a reality.

Wilson was now able to experiment, and he gradually became an expert at using 3-D printers. He printed his first "lower receiver," the part of the firearm that houses the operating parts. He quickly improved the design, strengthened the receiver at key points and rounded corners and edges so that they would no longer be predetermined breaking points. Although the first receiver broke after firing only five rounds, another printed receiver was still operating perfectly, without visible damage, after firing more than 600 rounds.

Fame, Fear and Support

The receiver was Wilson's first major success. To this day, the component has been downloaded more than 140,000 times from Wilson's website. The file is valuable for American gun enthusiasts, because a receiver identifies an American firearm, not unlike the vehicle identification number found in the auto industry. Whenever someone buys a gun in the United States, the receiver is recorded in a national registry. All other parts of the gun can be purchased in stores or online without having to provide identification. In principle, a printed receiver offers any amateur an opportunity to make a non-registered, semi-automatic assault rifle. Actual knowledge of how to make weapons is no longer necessary.

Wilson's receiver made him into a public figure, and talk-show hosts and politicians were suddenly taking him seriously. New York Democratic Congressman Steve Israel called for new legislation to criminalize the printing of such weapons, and New York Senator Charles Schumer voiced the concern that terrorists, the mentally ill and rapists would soon be able to make their own weapons in their garage.

Wilson's success attracted new allies, supporters and donors. He was soon running a growing network of sympathizers who, scattered across the United States, were digitizing magazines and other firearm parts for him. Sometimes new files were sent to him unsolicited. Two of these files made it possible to print hand grenades, and Wilson published them on his website.

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