This plastic pistol, photographed in 2013, was completely made on a 3D-printer at a home in Austin, Texas. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP, File)
Photo: Jay Janner
Photo: Jay Janner

Georgia authorities, businesses brace for risks of 3D printed guns

They’re expensive to produce, not very durable and hardly accurate. But they’re also impossible to trace, impervious to metal detectors and not subject to background checks.

Blueprints for plastic guns produced via 3D printers were to be legally posted online Wednesday, but a federal judge in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order Tuesday blocking the release, according to The Associated Press. The judge warned of “a possibility of irreparable harm because of the way these guns can be made.”

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump tweeted earlier Tuesday that the release of the blueprints “doesn’t seem to make much sense!” And CNN reported that White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley told reporters: “In the United States, it’s currently illegal to own or make a wholly plastic gun of any kind, including those made on a 3D printer.”

Companies in metro Atlanta are delving into the world of 3D printing.

In Georgia, which already has some of the least stringent gun laws in the country, it’s clear that many businesses and law enforcement alike want no part of this new frontier.

Owners of several Georgia 3D printing companies say they won’t produce guns for individuals, but they predict private citizens who want to produce firearms undercover will have plenty of other options. They warn, though, that poorly made plastic guns are likely to literally blow up in the hands of makers or buyers who fire them.

“It’s going to cause a lot of people to get hurt,” said Ron Robinson, the owner of 3D Printer Technology in Marietta.

Eight states and the District of Columbia sued the Trump administration, seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the federal government from allowing access to downloadable plans for these weapons.

The longstanding prohibition against these guns was lifted in June following a settlement with Defense Distributed, the Texas firm that plans to post the digital guns online. The settlement stemmed from a 2015 lawsuit filed by Defense Distributed against the State Department, which had mandated the removal of all blueprints online.

Gov. Nathan Deal thinks Georgia lawmakers will likely tackle the debate when they meet in January.

“It’s probably going to be a social issue that future legislatures will consider,” he said. “I don’t have a position on it one way or another. I don’t know enough about it. I’ll leave that to those who will follow behind me, to delve into it and decide whether it needs to be regulated or simply left alone.”

Gun rights advocates say the concern over downloadable weapons is much ado about nothing.

“For the cost of a 3D printer you can more easily buy a gun off the black market,” said Jerry Henry, executive director of Georgia Carry. “The better approach (by police) would be to crack down on stolen guns.”

3D printed guns are less accurate than traditional firearms, Henry said. “Criminals just aren’t going to go to that trouble. Maybe down the road, when the price goes down. But even then the plastic barrel will always be a problem. You put a 100-round magazine in it and if you emptied it, the gun would melt.”

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills agreed that most criminals will continue getting guns the old-fashioned way — from an illegal dealer or theft. Once they do, the serial numbers are usually scrubbed, making traditional guns no more traceable than the homemade variety.

“We need to keep an eye on it,” Sills said. “Technology changes so rapidly. But for now I don’t think they’re going to be much of a threat.”

But why risk it, said Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, who fears downloadable guns will only serve to make a bad situation worse.

“I think it’s safe to say that the law enforcement community is deeply disturbed by the prospect of even more guns flooding our streets,” Shields told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Any semblance of responsibly vetting potential gun owners goes completely out the window with these downloadable plans. These do-it-yourself guns will make it easier for these weapons to get in the hands of criminals and make it harder for law enforcement to track the perpetrators of gun violence.”

3D printers are not as rare as you might think. Devices of varying quality and capabilities already exist in a growing number of Georgia businesses, makerspaces, universities, schools and homes.

The sharing of plans for making guns adds a worrisome twist.

“As a mother it is scary to me that we would have that type of technology available to anyone,” said Gabi Mooney, director of operations at Mass Collective, a for-profit Atlanta makerspace where dozens of members pay to use 3D printers and other equipment.

Her husband, Mike Mooney, who is a part-owner of Mass Collective, assumes the likelihood of self-harm will scare off many would-be gunmakers.

“The risk of guns being printed willy-nilly all over the place is overblown,” he said. “You’d be 50/50 blowing your own hand off.”

A printable pistol released on the Internet was named “Liberator” in April 2013. MUST CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Cody Wilson
Photo: Courtesy of Cody Wilson

Other business owners said they suspect people who are seeking 3D printed guns want to avoid attention. They speculate that some do-it-yourselfers will try making weapons at home, while other buyers will put in online orders through sites that connect 3D printers with potential clients.

“People don’t have to go anywhere to print a 3D gun,” said Josh Stover of 3D Printing Tech in Atlanta.

3D printing technology has expanded the options of what’s possible for a broader audience, from more quickly creating prototypes for new products to making otherwise hard-to-find replacement parts. It doesn’t stop there.

Mass Collective already declined one member’s request to print a gun in the controlled space. And Mooney said he witnessed someone testing an arm-held flame thrower outside an unrelated makerspace elsewhere.

Home 3D printers capable of producing rudimentary plastic guns can be purchased for a few hundred dollars, according to business owners. But skill in operating the machines is important. And invisible blemishes could be catastrophic if a plastic gun is used.

“There are so many variables in the process at the consumer level that there is no way to guarantee the strength of it,” said Garrett Sisk, owner of Marion Systems, a Macon-based printer maker.

He and other printers say, at a minimum, the legal risks are too great for them to accept requests to make firearms on their machines.

“I am not in the business of guns, nor do I want to be,” he said.

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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.