School Climate & Safety

Could 3D-Printed Guns Bypass Policies Designed to Keep Schools Safe?

By Evie Blad — July 31, 2018 4 min read
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A website’s plans to publish online blueprints that will allow users to make working plastic guns at home using 3D printers have stoked fear that the DIY devices might make schools, and other public places, less safe.

The plans were originally set to go online Wednesday, but U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik in Seattle issued an order Tuesday evening temporarily halting their publication. He did so in response to a last-minute lawsuit filed by seven state attorneys general.

Those officials and gun control organizations have argued that 3D-printed guns would be undetectable by metal detectors and that they could bypass firearms regulations, including many passed since the February school shooting in Parkland, Fla., with the aim of stopping school shootings.

A settlement by the Trump administration cleared the way for the plans to be posted online. That settlement followed a previous block on the website by the Obama administration, which argued that posting the plans violated firearms export laws. The creator of the website, Defense Distributed, argues it has a First Amendment right to share the plans, which cover handguns, parts for AR-15s, user-submitted designs, and a handgun called “the Liberator,” which is made entirely out of plastic except for a small metal firing pin.

“The high-end 3-D printers needed to make such weapons cost thousands of dollars and may be too expensive for most people,” CNN reports. “But that doesn’t ease the concerns of those who think guns made from 3-D printers are a really bad idea.”

In recent weeks, gun-control advocates, including those concerned about school safety, have pushed hard for federal officials to act to stop the site from sharing the plans. All of the work by policymakers to stop dangerous people from carrying guns could be undone if there is a new, unregulated source of firearms, they’ve argued.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., tweeted this video after meeting with Fred Guttenberg, who has become outspoken about gun laws and school safety after his daughter, Jaime, died in the Parkland, Fla., shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Guttenberg teamed up with relatives of Parkland victims who take a variety of positions in the gun debate to push for passage of a broad school safety bill in Florida this spring. Among its provisions is a so-called “red flag law” that allows courts to seize weapons and prohibit their purchase if an individual is deemed a threat his or herself or others.

States around the country have passed similar laws in recent months, many citing evidence that mass shooters and school shooters often show warning signs of their violent intent before they act. But a new, unregulated source of guns could make those laws harder to enforce.

Could 3D-printed guns bypass school metal detectors?

Another common response to the school shootings in Parkland and at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas: new school metal detectors.

Both schools have plans to use the devices in the coming school year. And districts around the country have explored adding them to some buildings to keep weapons out, despite concerns from some school safety experts that their resources would be better spent on prevention and student supports.

But could 3D guns bypass school metal detectors? Maybe.

“In December 2013, a federal law requiring that all guns be detectable by metal screening machines was extended for another 10 years,” CNN reports. “The law prohibits guns that don’t contain enough metal to trigger screening machines commonly found in airports, courthouses and other secure areas accessible to the public. Plastic gun designs got around this restriction by containing a metal block that could be removed and that the firearm could function without.”

Traditional ammunition is metal, so it would likely be detected. But some designers have also worked on 3D-printed bullets.

Some doubt the plastic firearms could do as much damage as a traditional metal gun without some further innovation. As the AP reports “industry experts have expressed doubts that criminals would go to the trouble [of printing the guns], since the printers needed to make the guns are very expensive, the guns themselves tend to disintegrate quickly and traditional firearms are easy to come by.

“Unlike traditional firearms that can fire thousands of rounds in a lifetime, the 3D-printed guns normally last only a few rounds before they fall apart, experts say. They don’t have magazines that allow the usual nine or 15 rounds to be carried; instead, they usually hold a bullet or two and then must be manually loaded afterward. And they’re not usually very accurate.”

But gun-control groups say that 3D printers are getting less expensive and more accessible and that users will refine the plans over time, making the guns more effective. They’ve called on the Trump administration to block the publication of the blueprints.

Trump tweeted that he is “looking into” the issue Tuesday morning.

Photo: Cody Wilson holds what he calls a Liberator pistol that was completely made on a 3-D-printer at his home in Austin, Texas, in 2013. --Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.