FACT CHECK: Is It ‘Perfectly Legal’ To Print 3D Guns?

Aaron Andrews | Contributor

Stephen Gutowski, a staff writer at The Washington Free Beacon, claimed in a tweet that it is “perfectly legal for law-abiding Americans to download and print” 3D gun designs from the internet.

Verdict: True

Gutowski is correct with a few exceptions. A law-abiding person can fabricate a 3D-printed firearm so long as it can be picked up by a metal detector. Some weapons, including machine guns, short-barrel shotguns and short-barrel rifles, are heavily regulated.

Fact Check:

On July 31, a federal judge in Seattle temporarily prevented Defense Distributed, a non-profit, private defense firm, from releasing designs for 3D printable guns onto the internet.

This started a national debate over 3D-printed firearms — guns created in a process called “additive manufacturing,” where a special printer adds layer upon layer of plastic, carbon fiber or even metal to fabricate a weapon.

Gutowski weighed in over Twitter, saying that gun blueprints have long been available on the internet.

“It has also been perfectly legal for law-abiding Americans to download and print or mill these designs the whole time as well,” he claimed. “It has also remained illegal for prohibited persons to build firearms with 3D printers or by any other means as well.”

Gutowski’s statement is true with a few caveats.

As he mentions, a person must be able to possess a firearm legally in order to print one. Felons, drug users, illegal aliens, the mentally disabled — if any of these people tried to print a gun, they would be violating the law.

It’s important to note that Americans are only free to make guns for their personal use. If someone wants to sell 3D-printed guns, that person would need to obtain a license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Federal law also restricts a person’s ability to make certain firearms under the National Firearms Act (NFA). NFA-regulated firearms include short-barrel rifles, short-barrel shotguns, machine guns and — with some exceptions — guns that have a bore larger than half an inch. In order to produce an NFA-regulated firearm legally, you have to pay a $200 “making” tax and get advanced approval from the ATF.

Machine guns are even more heavily regulated. As of 1986, an individual is prohibited under the Firearm Owner’s Protection Act from possessing a machine gun, unless it was made before 1986 or is operated under the direct authority of the U.S. government.

Bottom line: if you want to make an NFA-regulated gun, then you need permission. And if you want to possess a machine gun, then you should probably join the Army. Getting caught with one illegally could result in a $250,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison.

Under the Undetectable Firearms Act, federal law also prohibits a person from possessing a firearm that doesn’t trigger a metal detector.

Gutowski correctly addressed this law in a subsequent tweet:

“The vast majority of 3D printed gun designs are not undetectable to metal detectors. The majority are mostly made of metal because most of their parts have to be sourced from actual firearms manufacturers. Under federal law it would be illegal to build a gun that’s undetectable,” he said.

So what about the Liberator, then — that plastic pistol plastered all over the internet that looks vaguely like the handle of a gas pump?

The Liberator is not an NFA-regulated firearm. It’s a single-shot, meaning it only can hold one bullet at a time. But is it undetectable?

The current design for the Liberator includes a metal firing pin, as well as a metal plate that Defense Distributed added for compliance with federal law. So law-abiding Americans should be able to print the Liberator free from federal regulation so long as it includes those metal components.

CNN notes that the metal block is removable, however, and speculates that “a similar gun could be made with a ceramic firing pin to go undetected.”

The National Rifle Association (NRA) says that whatever impact 3D gun blueprints may have, federal law banned the production of undetectable guns a long time ago. “Regardless of what a person may be able to publish on the Internet, undetectable plastic guns have been illegal for 30 years,” Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, said in a press release.

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Published: Monday, Aug. 6, 2018

Aaron Andrews