Are 3-D printed guns a security threat?

by: Tom Regan Updated:

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ATLANTA - A Channel 2 Action News Investigation found diverse opinions regarding the public security danger of weapons created using new versions of 3-D printers that are now widely available to consumers.

The first known 3-D printed plastic gun capable of firing a bullet was created by a law student in Texas. Cody Wilson demonstrated his creation, called the Liberator, on the Internet last year and made the computer blue print to the gun available to downtown for free. Although he removed the blueprint, it was still widely available and legal to download.

In reaction to the Liberator, the U.S. Congress in December extended a law due to expire that requires 3-D plastic guns have a metal strip that would make them visible to metal detectors.

The special agent in charge of the Atlanta-based southeast regional office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said plastic guns represent a significant threat if the metal strip is removed.

"One could easily slip by and defeat magnetometers and X-ray machines going into a courthouse, right out to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport," said ATF Special Agent in Charge Christopher Shaeffer.

The ATF built and tested a Liberator. It successfully fired eight times, seven times more than necessary, according to the ATF.

"They only have to be right once. So, even if it's a substandard firearm, that's made of plastic, they only have to be right once," said Shaeffer.

However, experts in the field of 3-D printing tell Channel 2 Action news the security threat posed by plastic weapons created with a printer is exaggerated.

Channel 2's Tom Regan spoke with the 3-D printer research expert at Dell Secure Works, a cybersecurity firm that constantly monitors technology that could pose risk to its clients and the public.

"This is just kind of overblown to an extent, in my mind,” said Dell Secure Works researcher Joe Stewart.

Stewart showed Regan the challenges of printing even simple three-dimensional objects on a consumer credit printer. He said creating a workable plastic gun that could fire bullets requires an advanced 3-D costing many thousands of dollars and even then, the product may be flawed.

"You'd be very prone to misfire. The bullet not hitting the target or exploding in your hand," said Stewart.

Channel 2 Action News producers purchased a Cube 3-D printer that cost approximately $1,500. After downloading the blueprint for a Liberator handgun, producers printed parts of the weapon to determine quality and complexity of construction. It took approximately one day to print the parts and three hours to assemble the parts. In the process, several parts broke and had to be reprinted. Based on our test, we concluded the product we produced would not be safe to fire a bullet. If we had used a more advanced 3-D printer, the gun may have been more sturdy and reliable.

Channel 2 also spoke to the director of the 3-D invention studio at Georgia Tech.  Professor David Rosen said given the limits of technology to build a reliable gun from a desktop grade printer, he said he would consider other threats more pressing for the government.

"I’m far more worried about Al Quaida, anthrax and things like that, than 3-D printed guns," said Rosen.

3-D printing technology was developed in the 1980s. It's currently used in a wide variety of research, industrial production and engineering applications.