Why You Shouldn’t Be Freaked Out About 3D Printed Guns

05.21.13 5 years ago 8 Comments

Soon after Defense Distributed was forced to take down its 3D plans for a goofy, useless plastic gun some other guy — this time the anonymously named “Joe” — put up a video of his much better, but still awful, plastic gun made on a much cheaper 3D printer. And he called it the “Lulz Liberator.” There’s a name that inspires confidence. A lot of people are freaking out about these things. But they really shouldn’t be.

So why shouldn’t I be freaked out about untraceable guns?

If you weren’t freaked out about them before, why should you be now? The only thing new about Defense Distributed and Joe’s plans are really the whole 3D printing thing, which makes them inaccessible to anybody but nerds with money, but the reality is nothing they’re doing is something you couldn’t do, right now, with a few simple tools.


We all know from cop shows how a gun works, sorta: A hammer strikes a firing cap or a primer, triggering a small explosion that the barrel focuses in a specific direction.

Now, doing this accurately across reasonably far distances is extremely hard to do and we spend millions improving it every year. But if you just want to fire a bullet at somebody, you can do that with a visit to the hardware store. Here’s some guy doing it in less than two minutes with stuff you can find in the house. In fact, it’s probably a lot more untraceable than one of these things.


Because these “untraceable” guns are pretty easy to trace, in the sense that not many people currently own a 3D printer, and if the police find “Untraceable plastic gun” in your Google search history, they’re probably going to have a few questions for you.

What makes you think it’s that simple?

For two reasons: one, criminals tend to be pretty stupid. Just look at the ongoing exploits of Florida Man. Two, because they’re insanely dangerous and just as likely to kill the guy pulling the trigger. Defense Distributed’s own designs tended to explode, melt, or both, and Joe had to fix his precision crafted weapon with the subtle and artful way of smacking the thing with a hammer. It’s true the “Lulz Liberator” is claimed to be a lot sturdier and more reliable than Defense Distributed’s design, but that’s a bit like saying an AMC Gremlin is better than a Yugo. The first attempted murder with one of these things is probably going to end with the killer trying to pick plastic shrapnel out of his face.

But won’t crooks eventually get these 3D printers? And won’t the designs improve?

Sure, along with everyone else. And metal ones already exist and are getting cheaper all the time. But there are two things people need to stop and consider before freaking out.

The first is that we’re years, likely decades, away from being able to run off an AK-47 in our living room. The history of firearms essentially doubles as the history of precision engineering, and the materials science and precision of 3D printers is nowhere close to that level yet. Considering the big idea for these things is to run off spatulas and Crocs, it may never be available on a consumer level anyway.

The second is that we are just not that violent as a society. We had over 14,000 homicides in 2011… and over two million burglaries. You’re far more likely to have your stuff stolen than get shot because criminals are capable of evaluating opportunity cost too, and a crime that nets you more money where you’re less likely to be caught is highly appealing. Violent crime has been dropping for years and it seems unlikely to suddenly spike just because a bunch of nerds with more toys than sense have decided to play revolutionary in their backyard.

So why is the media going nuts about this?

Because it’s clickbait like you wouldn’t believe. Gun control is a highly charged issue right now, and these things are freakishly timed to cater right to the desires and/or fears of the loudest extremes. The facts are getting in the way of a good story, so the facts are being conveniently ignored.

Unless that’s what they want you to think!

Yeah, you’ll find the proper place to discuss that theory right here.

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