The Dangers of 3D-Printed Guns

By David Chipman, Giffords Senior Policy Advisor

This photo taken May 10, 2013 shows Cody Wilson holding what he calls a Liberator pistol that was completely made on a 3-D-printer at his home in Austin, Texas. Congress is extending a ban on plastic firearms that can slip past airport and school metal detectors and X-ray machines, a bittersweet moment for gun control advocates just before the first anniversary of the mass killing at a Connecticut elementary school. (AP Photo/Austin American Statesman, Jay Janner)

Most people think of serial numbers as something attached to the car or their new iPhone. As a law enforcement officer for 25 years, I saw serial numbers a bit differently. For me, they were a key clue to busting illegal gun runners and taking down the perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing. I learned early on that criminals will try to hide or destroy serial numbers so the weapons they use won’t lead back to them.

That’s why removing a serial number from a gun is a serious federal crime that can send you to prison for a decade. A firearm without a serial number can’t be traced to its buyer, a fact criminals know all too well.

But the Trump Administration, which at every turn has claimed to be a defender of law enforcement, just issued a ruling that could upend the job of law enforcement officers across the country.

What exactly did they do?

The Trump Administration recently settled a lawsuit allowing anyone to 3D-print their own guns.

The Trump Administration’s ruling will recklessly allow anyone to post their gun blueprints online for anyone to download. That means people who are unable to pass a background check—like terrorists, convicted felons, and domestic abusers—will be able to 3D-print a gun out of the same type of plastic used to make LEGOs—without any attached serial numbers. This could have severe repercussions a decade from now if we allow weapons of this kind to multiply.

Tracing serial numbers catches criminals.

Consider how tracing currently works today: In 2017, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) used serial numbers to trace guns over 400,000 times, a critical tool to help law enforcement solve crimes. ATF agents also used the results of these traces to identify the methods by which firearms entered the illegal market and devised strategies to disrupt these criminal networks.

Looking back on my career as a special agent for ATF, I often used serial numbers from guns to disrupt major firearms trafficking organizations. But it was the serial number recovered in Oklahoma City on the truck used to blow up the federal building which demonstrates most dramatically how imperative serial numbers are to police. Without that serial number, Timothy McVeigh may have escaped justice. A serial number stamped on the axle was a key piece of evidence tying a terrorist to the rental truck used as a bomb. Whether the tool of violence is a gun, a truck, or another device, criminals don’t want a serial number to land them in prison.

Untraceable guns will make us less safe.

Given that removing a serial number from a gun is a ten-year felony, it may surprise most Americans to learn that building a gun without the serial number in the first place is now completely legal. Law enforcement will now face significant threats due to this 3D-printed technology, and this ruling paves the way for even more advances in technology that make it all but inevitable that new and even more durable materials will be invented that can be printed.

When this day comes, the ability to make a gun from scratch in the home will be an existential threat to public safety if laws are not in place to regulate the manufacture and printing of firearms that cannot be traced by criminals or later used in crime.

The time for lawmakers to act is now.