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3D-printed guns in NH: 'You cannot put this back in the box'

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 05. 2018 1:45PM
A New Hampshire man last week explained how he made a 3D-printed Liberator handgun. (Todd Feathers/Union Leader)

With its awkward, cube-like body and a detachable barrel that wiggles slightly even after it's slotted into place, the Liberator looks more like a toy than one of the most controversial guns in the world.

John, from New Hampshire, 3D-printed his Liberator in 2013. He asked that his real name not be used due to the divisive political climate surrounding the weapon.

It took multiple attempts to get the printing right and the final product took more than 24 hours to make. It cost only $15, if you don't count the materials, labor and decades of engineering experience it required for him to build his own 3D printer. The machines are available to purchase for anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

At the time - just a few days after Cody Wilson and his Texas nonprofit, Defense Distributed, first posted designs for the Liberator online - it was a hobbyist's project.

"People just do it because they want to see if they can do it," John said. "This one hasn't even been shot because I don't want to do any damage to it."

A 30-round AR-15 magazine he later printed has already begun to crack without being used.

But over the subsequent years - and particularly this month, when the State Department reached a settlement with Defense Distributed that would have allowed it to post 3D-printed gun designs online, only to have a federal court issue an injunction - the Liberator and its ilk have been at the center of a legal and philosophical battle.

Defense Distributed's supporters argue that prohibiting the publication of the designs would be a violation of free-speech rights. Gun control activists and a group of state attorneys general who sued to secure the injunction worry that the designs will enable anyone with access to a 3D printer to easily skirt gun laws and build undetectable firearms. New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald has not joined the lawsuit.

John, and others familiar with firearm manufacturing, believe the intense debate over Defense Distributed is a political hullabaloo that has outlived its ability to influence the real world.

"You cannot put this back in the box," he said.

While Defense Distributed has been prohibited from posting its computer-assisted design and computer-assisted manufacturing (CAD/CAM) files on its website since 2013, the files have been readily available from a number of other sources.

"I think our laws around digital content do not reflect the realities of the internet whatsoever," said Jeremy Kauffman, founder and CEO of Manchester-based LBRY, a community-run digital marketplace. "Everything that governments, politicians are doing in this area, they're living in a fantasy land. That file never disappeared . any person who wanted that file, with even a slight technical ability, would have been able to access that file."

The CAD/CAM files for the Liberator and a number of other 3D-printed guns are available through LBRY's system, which uses blockchain technology to connect creators to customers without a middleman. Even if legislation made it illegal for anyone to post the designs, the decentralized nature of the blockchain would make it all but impossible for LBRY or anyone else to eradicate them, Kauffman said.

LBRY also has designs for printable AR-15 lower receivers and several pistol frames, the part of the gun that contains the firing mechanism.

It is impossible to know how often the files have been used to make guns, or how many plastic guns are in circulation.

On May 7, 2017, the Transportation Security Administration detected a printed, plastic gun at the Manchester-Boston Regional Aiport and removed it from a passenger's carry-on luggage.

"TSA has determined that these items can, and have been detected at security checkpoints and our officers are trained to look for and detect threats such as artfully concealed items," said Michael McCarthy, a spokesman for the agency. "We have technology, such as X-rays, for carry-on baggage or screening passengers that is specifically designed to look for nonmetallic items that can be concealed."

Gun experts are skeptical that the plastic weapons will ever be widely used.

"You cannot take something that generates 60,000 pounds per square inch of pressure and put it inside plastic and have it stay together," said Les Seaboyer, owner of Thorr Gunsmithing in Hooksett. "It's going to come apart. How long is it going to hold together? Who knows? It could hold together for half a dozen rounds or it could come apart as soon as you try it."

A plastic lower receiver needs to be coupled with a barrel made of a more durable substance, and at that point it could be easier and cheaper to build the entire firearm in other nontraditional fashions, Seaboyer said.

The internet is also rife with videos of people demonstrating how to make AR-15s out of shovels or melted aluminum cans recast in molds, for example.

Like machining a metal gun, 3D-printing one requires a certain level of skill and access to the right equipment.

Public libraries and UPS stores with public 3D printers require customers to submit the CAD/CAM files to staff for review, and they prohibit the production of guns.

Given the complicated regulations and record-keeping requirements associated with gunsmithing, many rentable workspaces are adopting similar restrictions. MakeIt Labs in Nashua, for example, has decided not to allow any firearm-related 3D printing in its facility for the time being.

John, whose social circle is probably more libertarian-leaning than most people's, said that in the five years since he first made his Liberator he has not met anyone else with a 3D-printed gun.

"The issue is: Should the plans be available?" he said. "Well, they were available before this week. All the files have been available all the time, just not from (Cody Wilson's) computer in that industrial park in Texas."

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