Printed Guns: A Barometer for the NRA

© Josh Sager – May 2013


In the mid-20th Century, science fiction writers imagined a 21st Century where consumer goods and food could simply be printed in a machine quickly and at very low costs to the consumer. While this world has yet to truly materialize, we are rapidly seeing the beginnings of such a world emerge with the developments of 3D-Printing technology.

3D-printers use computer assisted design (CAD) blueprints—downloadable over the internet—as a template to print solid objects out of raw plastic polymers. This technology allows for the creation of a huge variety of good, ranging from lawn ornaments and tools, to, as of May 2013, fully working firearms.


The first functional 3D-printed firearm, called “The Liberator” (see above picture), was designed by Defense Distributed and first fired on May 1, 2013. After its successful test fire, Defense Distributed released the CAD blueprints of the gun onto the internet, turning the firearm into the first open-source weapon.

The Liberator is almost entirely plastic, only requiring a metal firing pin, and is completely invisible to metal detectors (the design has a non-vital metal piece to make it legal, but this piece can easily be taken out). It fires .308 rounds and is capable of firing multiple rounds without breaking.

Printed guns are a new frontier, as they allow individuals to make their own weapons without any reporting/regulation and to circumvent all conventional police methods to trace guns. In this new frontier of guns, a criminal can simply print off a metal-detector invisible gun for as little as $25, use it in a crime, and destroy it, only to make another one. There are no background checks to avoid, no worries about handling a “hot” gun, and no need to risk being caught buying an illegal weapon—they simply need a 3D-printer and an internet connection to obtain an untraceable weapon, or even to start their own arms factory. In addition to being untraceable, printed guns are made to be identical and there are no distinguishing marks to prove that a bullet came out of a specific gun (ex. All Liberators are exactly the same and there is no way to link a bullet used in a murder to a specific Liberator pistol).

Ultimately, The Liberator is far less lethal than a conventional firearm, but it is simply the proof of concept for a very dangerous new gun market; after the first designs for 3D-printed guns are successful, the development curve will dramatically expand and the new guns will be much more lethal.

To put the potential for this situation to spiral out of control into perspective: Less than two weeks after the release of The Liberator, a new design, called the “Lulz Liberator,” was released onto the internet. This design can hold 9 bullets instead of The Liberator’s 1, is cheaper (costing only $25), and is more resilient and less likely to misfire. If such improvements can be made in less than 2 weeks, imagine what could be developed by the end of the year, or in five years.


The NRA and Printed Guns

The NRA presents itself as a sportsman’s organization (or sometimes a “civil rights group,” but that is too absurd to dignify with a detailed response), and one would think that they would love the invention of printed guns. After all, when guns are printable, everybody can have one, the government will have a very hard time stopping new printed weapons from being manufactured, and the ideal, gun-flooded world of the NRA will be realized.

If we are to believe the gun-anarchy rhetoric of the NRA, the more guns that we have, the safer we will be and the development of printed guns is a great achievement. No longer will people have to buy their guns from regulated suppliers, as they can meet all of their hunting and self-defense needs with guns fabricated in their own garages.

In reality however, the NRA hasn’t been a sportsman’s organization since the gun manufacturers took it over in 1977 and transformed it from a group that supported responsible gun ownership and regulation into one that only cares for the interests of corporate donors. Rather than following the wishes of its members, the NRA now follows the wishes of its donors

As the donors to the NRA are primarily gun manufacturers, the NRA unfailingly supports deregulation of guns and more guns in society. More guns being sold equals more money being made by gun manufacturers and more money available to be “donated” to the NRA. Currently, the NRA is simply a combination of the gun lobby and a gun manufacturer’s PR group being shrouded in the remains of a century-old sportsman’s organization.

The development of 3D-printed guns presents a very interesting and complex problem for the NRA, as such a development puts its rhetoric at direct opposition with its goals. In order to attack regulation and promote the sale of guns, the NRA claims that more guns are always better and that regulations on guns are not only pointless, but oppressive. This rhetoric allows the NRA to increase the profits of their funders, while claiming to be defenders of freedom and safety. Unfortunately for them, this rhetoric is only useful in promoting gun sales for as long as guns are exclusively manufactured by corporations.

With the invention of printed guns, guns are much more available, but the gun manufacturers face a dramatic problem with their business model—if guns are printable by individual citizens at very low costs, they can no longer sell as many guns and their profits are directly threatened.

If the very same paranoid individuals who are stockpiling guns due to the rhetoric of the NRA realize that they could simply buy a 3D-printer and start their own arms factory (producing huge numbers of untraceable weapons to stave off “government tyranny and encroaching Mexican drug gangs”), they will no longer be cash-cows for conventional weapons manufacturers. Sure, assault rifles will likely not be fabricated in 3D-printers for a good time, but the entire handgun market may soon be swamped by the development of a cheap and reliable printed gun.


At the end of the day, the NRA’s response to the printed gun invention will determine the true nature of the NRA—will they stick to their talking points and endanger the business of their funders or will they betray their rhetoric in order to preserve the gun manufacture industry?

On one hand, if the NRA supports the gun-anarchy of printed weapons—untraceable and available to all—and gets behind protecting the right of everybody to become a gun manufacturer, they are truly as insane as their rhetoric has made them sound.

On the other hand, if the NRA supports stronger regulations on printed guns, they are exposing themselves to be nothing more than unprincipled tools of gun manufacturers—willing to promote gun anarchy and risk the murder of children if it protects the bottom line of their corporate sponsors.

Honestly, I am uncertain which is worse—being hopelessly corrupt or hopelessly insane—but neither option is particularly comforting when one considers the power of the NRA in Washington politics.


Beware an NRA “Concession” on Printed Guns

If I were a director at the NRA, I would utilize the outrage over the lack of gun control in order to facilitate the destruction of my funding corporation’s largest market competition. The public wants increased gun control and the NRA could direct its political allies to give them just that—but only affecting the emerging market of printed guns.

It would be extremely easy for lawmakers to make arguments against printed gun ownership, as the entire concept is a public safety nightmare. Currently, public opinion is eviscerating the NRA’s political allies (ex. a 15-point drop in approval for Kelly Ayotte after she voted against background checks) and a strong anti-printed gun law could be just the fig leaf that they need in order to stave off criticism.

If NRA-allied politicians were to “break” with the NRA line and draft strong legislation attacking printed guns, the NRA need only not score or attack them for their actions. The NRA could simply say that it will not oppose restrictions on gun printing, as it is a very new industry that is too new to speculate upon, or that printed guns are so unreliable at this point in time that they pose a safety risk to the user.

By calling a bill severely restricting gun printing or ownership of printed weapons a concession, the NRA could simultaneously serve the interests of their corporate funders and give themselves a veneer of credibility—by appearing reluctant to support such legislation, but eventually going along with it, they could paint themselves as more reasonable then they actually are and deflect future demands to increase gun restrictions by saying that they already met the gun control advocates part of the way.

In looking at legislation aimed at restricting gun printing, we must not only set the bar high, but we must also not allow gun manufacturers to use us to destroy their competition and then call it a concession. Any new restrictions on printed guns must not be considered progress in the debate over gun control in the USA.

4 thoughts on “Printed Guns: A Barometer for the NRA

  1. .308 is a rifle round. The Liberator fires a .380 – rather anemic pistol cartridge. Even with that cartridge, there have been some reports of failure:

    Also, every pistol is manufactured to be exactly alike – whether in plastic or steel. Forensic ballistics use microscopic marks made by rifling in the barrel to match a bullet to a particular weapon. The Liberator is smooth bore – therefore no rifling – but a conventional pistol made from steel could be made with a smooth bore as well (i.e. this particular problem is not inherent to the 3D printing process).

    One other correction – you pose a rhetorical question as to whether the NRA will prove to be hopelessly corrupt or hopelessly insane. It is possible for them to be both.


    • You are correct about the caliber and I will correct this immediately.

      That said, the 3-D printing technology allows for the creation of functionally identical weapons in a way that metal guns are simply incapable of reproducing. The process is such that even on the microscopic level, the striations and firing impressions are not comparable to legal standards (at least according to the FBI). The polymer flexes, rather than abrades, thus it doesn’t leave clear markings on the bullet and even the marks which are left behind are too indistinct to match to a gun.

      You may be correct that the NRA is both insane and corrupt, but I think that it is more likely that the organization is run by corrupt people and staffed by insane people. There may be overlap, but we will see what the true colors are when legislation restricting printed guns hits the floor.


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