Throughout history, one of the issues plaguing gun manufacturers is the stability and durability of parts. A handheld firearm is, for all intents and purposes, a sort of miniature cannon. Chambers and barrels needed to be strong enough to withstand the concussive blast of an explosive charge in a very confined space. Repeating rifles or “machine guns” have been around since the 1500s. James Puckle patented the “Puckle Gun” in London in 1718. It was a flintlock cannon capable of firing up to about a dozen rounds before reloading.
Part of the problem to be overcome for developers of these weapons was the heat generated in the barrel of a repeating gun. The grooves, or “rifling,” would be diminished, impacting accuracy. In many cases, the barrel would physically warp of distort, making the weapon unusable. Improvements in metallurgy created steel and iron that would withstand these pressures. Gun makers today continue to look for stronger materials to build weapons with longer durability and reliability.
In 1982, Glock upended that.
Gaston Glock was an Austrian engineer. He made knives and curtain rods for the Austrian military. His specialty was polymers. In 1982, he was intrigued by a bid put out by the Austrian Armed Forces for a weapon to replace the World War II era Walther handgun.
Glock developed a prototype that could withstand firing 15,000 rounds of standard ammunition. What was unique about his now ubiquitous gun was that it contained many parts that were made with high-strength nylon-based polymer. Countries and law enforcement around the world initially tried to block the sale and trade of Glock firearms because it was perceived as a “plastic gun” that would evade standard metal detectors and airport safety standards.
It’s now the official weapon of police forces and the armed services of over 48 countries, including in the United States.
Which brings us to today.
Remember the Clint Eastwood movie “In the Line of Fire”? In it, Eastwood’s character “Frank Horrigan” is contemplating a forced retirement from the Presidential Detail of the Secret Service. His nemesis is Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) who is targeting the President and taunting Horrigan with his intentions. Leary’s chosen weapon is a zip gun made from composite materials to escape detection at a Presidential event.
In 2013, a gun enthusiast named Cody Wilson posted a YouTube video of himself firing what he called “The Liberator,” a gun he had made from polymers and metals using a 3D printer. He then posted the manual online with CAD drawings and instructions for making your own Liberator. After having been downloaded over 100,000 times, the Federal Government stepped in and ordered him to take it down. In 2015, Defense Distributed, who had assumed control of the Liberator manual, sued the Feds. Their decision stood until this past April, when a judge reversed the long-standing opinions of the State Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and others. As of Wednesday, August 1st, you will once again be able to download plans for a Liberator and 3D print your very own untraceable, unregulated, unregistered gun.
This goes against many current laws. It violates international arms trafficking laws. It defies common sense. Someone with a restraining order can make their own gun. Someone who is unable to pass a background check can make their own gun. Terrorists, domestic abusers, and felons can make their own guns.
Wilson’s gun had a metal firing pin, because in 1988 Congress passed the “Undetectable Firearms Act,” which said that any weapon manufactured in the United States (or bought or traded in America) had to be recognizable in a metal detector or other reasonable screening.
Wilson’s available plans, however, don’t require you to do that. If you can create a plastic firing pin capable of triggering a charge in a bullet, you can make one and use it. You can make it from the same sort of plastic as your child’s favorite LEGOs.
Granted, a 3D printed gun, created using free software but relatively expensive machines and materials, isn’t going to create a flood of illicit weapons on our streets. There are millions of weapons on the streets today that were stolen, found, or purchased through strawmen. Most of those are cheaper and more powerful than Wilson’s Liberator.
But in the grand scheme of things, shouldn’t we make the possession of “ghost guns” harder to achieve, and not easier?