The downloadable gun: next firearms frontier


San Jose Mercury News

The white-hot debate in Congress over background checks, assault weapons and high-capacity magazines has cooled for now. But a new, futuristic “arms race” is afoot that could turn the politics of gun control on its head.

One side wants to use technology to make guns safer; the other wants to make them much more widely available.

“Smart guns,” which are digitally personalized so only their owners can fire them, sound like the stuff of a spy movie — indeed, the concept showed up last year in the James Bond film Skyfall with his beloved Walther PPK/S 9 mm short. But guns like Bond’s could be on the market soon.

And 3-D printers that can produce gun parts sound like something out of Star Trek — an object seemingly materializing out of thin air. But while the technology is still in development, it eventually could be easier to download a gun than to buy one.

Both technologies could change how Americans view firearms — and make moot some laws now in effect or under debate.

“There is the potential for changing the whole balance” of the gun debate, said William Vizzard, professor emeritus of criminal justice at Sacramento State University and a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

A 3-D printer turns a digital model into an object by laying down tiny, successive layers of material, usually plastic, that harden into place. Cody Wilson, a 25-year-old University of Texas law student, has made it a personal crusade to use the technology for firearms. He aims to produce and publish online a completely printable plastic gun and then adapt the design for use on printers that are getting smaller and less expensive all the time.

“Guns are a human right that can never be taken away,” Wilson said, “and everything else is just legislative dross.”

The ability to make your own gun could neuter established laws, such as background checks or possibly even assault weapons bans.

Skeptics question whether 3-D-printed parts can withstand the heat and pressure of firearms. But Wilson says his printed mechanism for an AR-15-style .223-caliber rifle — America’s most popular style of semi-automatic rifle and the kind used in mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn. — fired 660 rounds with no problem. A whole gun isn’t far off, he said.

Stratasys, the Minnesota company that makes Wilson’s printer, would not comment on the new use of its product.

Wilson certainly isn’t the only one doing it. Amateur gunsmiths Michael Guslick, of Wisconsin, and Chapman Baetzel, of New Hampshire, have been blogging since summer about their experiments with printed parts for various rifles and pistols. And they’re just the ones who’ve gone public with their work.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a Newtown-based gun industry trade group, says 3-D printing shouldn’t be a public safety concern because it’s easier for criminals to steal guns or buy them on the black market.

The National Rifle Association did not return emails and calls seeking comment. But Vizzard said it will be interesting to see whether the NRA sides with gunmakers, who presumably want people to buy guns rather than make their own, or with those who want to “democratize gun manufacturing.”

The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 says you don’t need a license to make a firearm for personal use, but the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 bans firearms that are invisible to metal detectors or airport X-rays.

Wilson said he’s working with lawyers to avoid running afoul of the latter law, but Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., on April 10 introduced House Resolution 1474 to renew and expand the 1988 law to include specific parts like those Wilson and his peers are producing.

“We must stay ahead of the curve to keep high-security areas safe from terrorists and criminals that can circumvent not only gun safety laws, but security checkpoints as well,” Israel said. “Law enforcement officials should have the power to stop homemade undetectable magazines and major components from proliferating with a simple click of a print button.”

Wilson’s chicken-in-every-pot, gun-in-every-hand ethos isn’t exactly what those developing smart guns have in mind.

They hope to prevent the tragedies that occur when guns end up in children’s hands, or misuse by anyone other than rightful owners. If Nancy Lanza had owned smart guns that weren’t coded for her son’s use, the argument goes, he couldn’t have used them to massacre Newtown schoolchildren.

Attorney Charles Miller, an officer and director of Safe Gun Technology in Columbus, Ga., is about to pitch a proposal for investments in his company to the Sandy Hook Promise Innovation Initiative, a project launched in March to enlist Silicon Valley technologists and investors in developing profitable, high-tech ways to quell gun violence.

Miller’s company has a prototype shotgun with a fingerprint-based mechanism and plans to develop a kit for use by trained gunsmiths to retrofit existing guns. Just as automakers and buyers embraced seat belts and air bags as desirable safety measures, Miller said “a lot of gun owners will put it on their weapons” because it’s “ultimately about trying to save lives.”

San Diego-based Intelligun is in the final stages of developing its own fingerprint-based system. Florida-based iGun Technology’s shotgun uses a magnetic tag in the owner’s ring to unlock the firing mechanism, but the company’s president said there hasn’t been enough demand to drive production. Other companies’ prototypes rely on a radio-frequency identification chip the gun owner could wear in a ring.

New Jersey legislators saw it coming. In 2002, they enacted a law requiring smart-gun technology in all new handguns sold starting three years after the state attorney general deems one safe and commercially available.

Jake McGuigan, a lobbyist for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said the firearms industry doesn’t oppose smart guns if they can be made as reliable as any other firearm. But, he said, they aren’t yet because batteries and sensors can fail, perhaps leaving gun owners in the lurch and gunmakers liable for their products’ failure.

“Up to this point, there hasn’t been a demand for this kind of product,” he said. “Let the market drive it, not a legislative mandate.”

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