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3D-printed firearms: their history and potential for harm at EKU

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Gun control is quite possibly the most polarizing, vitriolic topic of discussion in modern American history. The outbreak of shootings in grade schools and college campuses in the past 15 years have only made opponents on both sides of the issue angrier.

As battle over firearm safety regulations has evolved in scope, so has the technology making them. Not just in improving attributes like accuracy and firepower, but in the means of making them as well. Since 2013, 3D printers, those miraculous makers of all material objects, have been given the capability of churning out guns.

Many universities have 3D printers available to use for students. Eastern Kentucky University is included in that number. While there is no longer a working printer in the library available for use, one still resides in the second floor of the Roark Building, ever ready for use. With that information in mind, a question begs to be asked. What are the possibilities of these weapons being made and carried on EKU’s campus?

It all started with a man named Cody Wilson. Wilson worked for a firearms manufacturing company called Defense Distributed. From his position there, he began distributing blueprints to make firearms out of components made from 3D printers. These 3D-Printed guns could be made entirely from plastic, if not for the metal firing pin component in them that is vital to the mechanisms of all firearms. The specific material in question is ABS plastic, the same plastic used to make LEGO bricks. Originally, Defense Distributed gave away the blueprints to download for free, getting them into some serious legal trouble.  

Naturally the notion of an untraceable weapon that could be created by anyone with access to a 3D printer rattled a few cages. The ATF classified 3D-Printed Weapons as deadly weapons after testing them. They fired several shots with a printed .380 caliber handgun at a ballistics gel target meant to simulate the human body. The damage wrought was identical to that left from a standard firearm.

  There have been a multitude of safety concerns about the use and carrying of 3D-printed weapons since the first one was printed by Wilson in 2013. As the parts can be made from 3D printers, they do not have serial numbers, making them virtually untraceable by authorities. This also works in a literal sense, as the majority of essential parts used to build the weapons are made of undetectable plastic. 

Some gun store owners and firearm safety instructors across the country have taken a stance against the printing and use of these weapons as well. Calling them not only dangerous for users, but inefficient as well. Given that 3D-printed weapons (at least the plastic ones) have definite, temporary life spans. Some only being limited to a handful of shots per use before becoming unusable.

  After several disputes in court, Wilson began distributing his blueprints for a price to get around the injunction filed against him. Consumers could pay whatever price they chose, but were given a recommended price of $10 per blueprint.  

Wilson himself has become a figure of even greater controversy, as he was arrested recently in Taiwan for allegedly paying a 16-year-old for sex in Texas. Wilson has since stepped down from his position at Defense Distributed.  

Several EKU students were asked this question. None of the reactions documented were very positive.

“Well my first question would be, are there 3D printed bullets?” asks Brittany Whitehead, a 21 year old Digital Media major from London. To answer her question, no there aren’t any 3D printed bullets, as the weapons in question fire standard ammunition.

Whitehead was much less snarky when speaking in depth about the topic.

“I don’t like the idea. It’s scary to me,” Whitehead said.

Ashley Tripp is another student who gave her opinion about 3D printed guns. The 18 year old history major from Berea hadn’t heard of these plastic firearms before, but came to a conclusion almost immediately after learning about them.

“It’s scary that you can create a weapon that can kill somebody and anyone would have access to it and there would be no way to trace it to you,”Tripp said.

Tiffany Day, a 28 year old Biology Education major from Tyner spoke at length about the topic. Particularly in relation to the notion of safety for campus security.

“There is no reason that needs to be happening,”Day said. “I think no good can come of that, for people who have guns that the campus police officers don’t know about. Because frankly, that’s a lot of risk on them.”

Thankfully for Whitehead, Tripp and Day, Lisa Moore doesn’t seem to be a fan of 3D-printed weapons herself. Among her role as Student Support Services Manager, the Berea native runs the Geek Program at EKU. From this position, Moore decides the fate of any request made of the 3D printer in the Roark building. She was blunt in her analysis of not only the legality of printing off these firearms, but their practical use as well.

“They’re not very accurate and they only allow you to shoot maybe five times. They’re a lot bigger of a hazard to the person using the gun. Plus, it’s illegal to have one due to a law covering undetectable firearms. They don’t make a whole lot of sense. We do 3D printing here, but one of our rules is we don’t do any weapons. Which would include the 3D printed guns, as Eastern has a rule about no weapons on campus. It breaks school rules,” Moore said.

According to Moore, there have been multiple attempts to slip behind these rules and make weapons using the Geeks’ 3D printer, one of which was to make a gun in the time since the printer has been on campus. All of which she said were quickly shot down.

While it is impossible to make these weapons at EKU, it’s still possible to make them elsewhere. Despite their founder being likely to go to prison for sex crimes and their DEFCAD file depository being shut down by a federal court, Defense Distributed limps on, still running their business and taking donations and still calling themselves the defenders of the Second Amendment.



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