Five months ago, the group of homemade gun enthusiasts known as Defense Distributed set out to create a lethal firearm that could be downloaded and 3D-printed entirely from scratch, circumventing all gun control laws. But as new gun bills have been proposed in the wake of recent shootings, creating a bootleg weapon with digital pieces may soon be far easier: As simple as printing a spring-loaded plastic box.
Over the past weekend, Defense Distributed successfully 3D-printed and tested an ammunition magazine for an AR semi-automatic rifle, loading and firing 86 rounds from the 30-round clip.
That homemade chunk of curved plastic holds special significance: Between 1994 and 2004, so-called “high capacity magazines” capable of holding more than 10 bullets were banned from sale. And a new gun control bill proposed by California Senator Diane Feinstein would ban those larger ammo clips again. President Obama has also voiced support for the magazine restrictions.
But Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson says he hopes the group’s recent work demonstrates the futility of that proposed ban in the age of cheap 3D printing.
“We want to preempt Feinstein, to eat their lunch,” says Wilson. “This isn’t 1994. The Internet happened since the last assault weapons ban. This is a fledgling tech, but look what we’re able to do. We printed that magazine out.”
Here’s a video of Defense Distributed’s latest testing. The clip begins with a dry question from Wilson: “How’s that national conversation going?” a reference to Democratic House majority leader Nancy Pelosi’s call for a “national conversation” about gun control following the December massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut.
Defense Distributed uploaded its blueprint for the 3D-printable magazine to its website, Defcad.org, which aims to collect designs for gun components, many of which have been removed from other websites. In just the last six days, according to Wilson, 20,000 files have been downloaded from Defcad, including more than 2,200 downloads of files for printing the three pieces that are assembled to create the magazine.
“The liberty crowd loves it,” says Wilson.
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence does not. “High capacity magazines are part of the weapons of choice of mass murderers,” says the group’s executive director Josh Horwitz. The larger-sized ammo clips were used, for instance, by rogue Army Major Nidal Hasan and the Tucson, Arizona shootings that killed six people and wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Horwitz points out that Tucson shooter Jared Loughner was tackled while attempting to reload a new magazine into his Glock handgun. And police say that Newtown, Connecticut shooter Adam Lanza may have allowed some of his victims to escape while he reloaded his smaller clips.
“The more opportunities to stop a mass shooter, the better,” says Horwitz. “There’s absolutely no justification for 30, 50 or 100 round magazines. And there’s a very good public health reason to get rid of them.”
Defense Distributed’s Wilson calls those arguments a “pernicious ideological mechanism. This isn’t a matter of public safety,” he says, so much as a matter of state control versus individual freedoms. “If [a firearm technology] is used by law enforcement or military, you can bet they say it shouldn’t be used by you,” he adds.
Wilson argues that the high capacity magazine ban wouldn’t just be wrong, but also impossible to enforce, as his project aims to show. Even if Defense Distributed’s original goal of printing a gun from scratch remains out of reach, the restrictions on magazine could be far more easily bypassed, he says. “[Lawmakers] are taking a giant step backward, and it makes everything we’ve talked about more practical,” says Wilson. “There’s more opportunity to demonstate the usefulness, the consequences of our project. I can already print this magazine and show that prohibition has run up against a problem.”
Defense Distributed has already drummed up plenty of controversy: It’s been banned from the fundraising website Indiegogo, had its rented printer seized by the 3D-printing firm Stratasys, and been name-checked by Congressman Steve Israel in a speech calling for a renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act.
After the group released YouTube videos of tests of 3D-printed lower receivers for AR-15 rifles, the popular 3D-printing community website Thingiverse began purging gun designs. Defense Distributed followed up by creating its own site for the censored designs at Defcad.org.
But the group has so far held off on attempting to print an entire gun while it waits for a legal license to manufacture guns from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. In the mean time, it’s been busy creating and refining its firearm components. The magazine, for instance, failed after three to five rounds in the group’s first test but worked reliably in subsequent tests.
In a recent blog post, Wilson posted a photo (at right) of dozens of high capacity clips arranged in a CAD file, ready for printing.
“Here’s something to keep the prohibitionists up,” he added.