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3D-printed 'downloadable' firearms could reshape U.S. gun control beginning this week

No traceable gun parts, no background checks, no need for much more than a computer and a 3D printer at home to build one.

They could become the firearms of the future: Plastic-and-resin weapons that American gunsmith and self-described anarchist Cody Wilson wants to spread widely.

On Aug. 1, the 30-year-old Texan intends to legally distribute online blueprints for his single-shot "Liberator" pistol, as well as manuals to complete guns such as the AR-15.

Some U.S. lawmakers are horrified by the prospect, warning "downloadable guns" are a national security concern.

But if politicians want to stop Wilson, they'll have precious little time.

The Trump administration last month settled a five-year lawsuit filed by Wilson against the federal government, allowing him to post a trove of once-restricted schematics this week, permitting anyone with access to a 3D printer to become a DIY gunsmith with a few mouse-clicks.

"The era of the downloadable gun has formally begun," proclaimed the homepage for Wilson's "wiki weapons" advocacy group, Defense Distributed.

With their release, Wilson has been forecasting the demise of firearms regulations that Americans have come to know.

Reached by phone in Austin, he declined to comment. But in a tweet last week, he posted a photo of a gravestone marked "American Gun Control."

Bill Nelson, a Democratic senator from Florida, announced Wednesday he was filing a bill to "severely restrict the publication" of the plans. Another Democrat, Ed Markey, implored Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a hearing to reconsider the "special exemption" on downloadable guns and keep Defense Distributed from publishing the instructions.

"I don't think we want to be in a world where Hamas in the Gaza has an ability to download a capacity for an AR-15 that could endanger security in that region," Markey protested. "And the same thing could happen around the world."

Pompeo's reply: "I'll take a look at it."

That didn't inspire confidence among gun-control advocates fearing a rise in "ghost guns" — untraceable, unregistered firearms bearing no serial numbers.

All-plastic guns can evade metal detectors. With Wilson's Liberator, only a tiny firing pin and a piece of steel put it in compliance with the Undetectable Firearms Act. (The Liberator manual instructs users to insert a metal block; critics say hobbyists might ignore that step.)

Defense Distributed held a successful test firing of a 3D printed gun on Saturday. It was captured in a promotional video for the organization. (Defense Distributed)

"It's the perfect weapon for a criminal," said John Lowy, vice-president of litigation with the Washington-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, one of three groups that filed a motion in Federal Court to block the settlement.

"If you're a convicted felon, a domestic-violence abuser, if you've been committed or determined to be dangerously mentally ill — but you have a 3D printer — you can make your own gun."

It's "a new avenue for making ghost guns," said Lindsay Nichols, federal policy director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, another group seeking the injunction.

The legal odyssey began in 2013, after Wilson printed and tested his Liberator. When Wilson shared the open-source data files so anyone around the world could print their own, too, he ran afoul of the U.S. Arms Export Control Act, which restricts the export of munitions.

According to the State Department at the time, posting his plans online amounted to an "export" of technical weapons data because it made the blueprints downloadable around the world. He was ordered to remove the files, which had been downloaded 100,000 times within a matter of days.

Cody Wilson points to his laptop screen, displaying an image of a prototype plastic gun, in this 2012 file photo. Some politicians and gun-control advocates worry about the emergence of 3D printers that can easily manufacture guns without any kind of licensing control. (Associated Press)

Wilson, who leans libertarian, challenged the restrictions on free-speech grounds.

"The court, generally, did not side with him," Nichols said. "He lost almost every time. The State Department basically was about to win the case."

But last month, the State Department unexpectedly settled.

Although DIY gun kits have long been sold online, Nichols said, it will never have been "so easy" to manufacture one with a commercially available milling machine, potentially leading to dangerous scenarios.

A somewhat surprising voice agrees. Eric Mutchler — another gunsmith who also lives Austin and manufactured a functional 3D-printed gun the same year that the Liberator came out — isn't on board with Wilson's vision.

A 'Ghost Gunner 2' computer-numerically-controlled (or CNC) milling machine, sold through Defense Distributed, allows purchasers to create their own guns and gun parts. (Defense Distributed)

"I have a little concern with it — only because I'm a dad," Mutchler said. "If I had a hobby printer and my son was playing on the internet and downloaded the [computer-assisted design], and said, 'Well dad's at work, I'm gonna print this and assembly it and test-fire it' … I'd be concerned about people being hurt and not using the proper safety equipment."

The Liberator has been known to break after one discharge, Mutchler said. Gun ranges often ban 3D-printed guns.

"You're more concerned about yourself, really, than shooting at somebody."

Mutchler named his handgun — the world's first 3D-printed M1911 made from metals — "Reason." One version, manufactured on a $ 1-million industrial milling machine, has fired 5,000 rounds and took 32 hours to make.

A photo shared from the manual for the Liberator 3D-printable gun shows a blue arrow pointing to a cavity where users are instructed to insert a chunk of metal to ensure the weapon complies with federal laws for metal-detection. (Courtesy Eric Multcher)

Speaking to CBC's The Current last week, Wilson said the response to his plan has been "equal parts outrage and equal parts kind of interest — and even delight."

Canadians will be able to download his blueprints, but it remains illegal to manufacture or possess firearms without appropriate licenses and registrations.

With legal barriers lifted in the U.S., the biggest obstacle to ubiquitous 3D-printable guns might be price. Defense Distributed sells its "Ghost Gunner 2" mill for $ 1,600 US. A Bushmaster M4 semi-automatic retails for about $ 700 US.

"If criminals want guns, they'll go out there and steal 'em," said Dave Workman, a gun-rights advocate with the Second Amendment Foundation. "They don't have to purchase a 3D-printing machine."

For Joe Biggs, a former host on the right-wing media outlet InfoWars, allowing designs for 3D-printable guns to be distributed is a constitutional right.

"Freedom of speech — that's what it boils down to," said Biggs, who says he owns $ 70,000 worth of firearms.

"I've told Cody before, I want to shoot [a Liberator]. I haven't done it yet, but I think it would be cool. I don't believe in an overpowering Big Government telling me everything I can and can't do."

Seized plastic handguns created using 3D-printing technology are displayed at Kanagawa police station in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, in 2014. (Kyodo)

Nor does he worry about homemade guns being used by criminals.

"I suck with computers. Most people barely know how to get on Facebook. Now we expect mass numbers of people who understand how to use these machines?"

Homemade guns have been used in murders, however. In 2013, a gunman in Santa Monica, Calif., assembled a semi-automatic rifle from parts he purchased online, killing five people.

Asked whether publicly available designs for plastic guns might make it more likely for similar violent crimes in the U.S., Biggs was unperturbed. "Anything's likely. Shit's gonna happen."

Wilson, meanwhile, is counting down till August with apparent glee. When gun-control group Everytown For Gun Safety tweeted a petition for Americans to block the settlement, he shared their plea and egged them on.

"Get on it," he wrote.

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