I spent the day yesterday desperately trying to get my hands on a gun. Specifically, the "Liberator," the 3D-printable firearm offered by Defense Distributed. I was unsuccessful, which is probably for the best.

The idea of download-and-print firearm plays an out-sized role in the current debate over guns — something to which I have contributed. Defense Distributed is explicit about its political aims, which tech site The Verge described as "crypto-anarchy." Two members of Congress, Rep. Steve Israel and Sen. Chuck Schumer have called for restrictions on the ability to print 3D weapons. With news that the plans for the weapon were downloaded 50,000 times yesterday, New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly indicated that it "obviously is a concern." So, as a resident of that city, it seemed like a natural experiment: How long would it take me from downloading a set of files to having a weapon in-hand?

It's been about 24 hours since Defense Distributed's long-standing goal of offering a firearm design that anyone could 3D print became a reality when it posted plans for the Liberator on its website. To celebrate the occasion, it also released this video, which you've likely already seen and don't need to watch after the first ten seconds.

I wanted to replicate this scene. So, at about 11 in the morning on Monday, I set out on a process I expected to follow:

  1. 1. Download the files
  2. 2. Print the files
  3. 3. Test the weapon

And here's the process I actually followed.

1. Downloading the files

By far the easiest part of the process was accessing the files themselves. Click a link, head over (somewhat amusingly) to Mega, the new sharing site created by the once-disgraced Kim Dotcom, and click "download." In short order, you have a compressed file that has potential to become lethal force. The file contains the following:

  • The license for the designs
  • A folder containing 16 "STL" files. STL is an abbreviation for the stereolithography format, a type of computer-aided design (CAD) file
  • Instructions on printing and assembling the firearm in English
  • The same, apparently, but in Chinese
  • An image of a traditional handgun with Chinese-language labels

2. Getting them printed

I do not own a 3D-printer. Late last week, the devices took a big leap forward in accessibility when Staples announced that it would carry them — for $1,300, which was not in the budget my editor gave me for this article. Last year, the office supply company announced plans to introduce 3D printing service in its stores, but that's still a ways away. So I needed to find another proto-Kinkos of the 3D-printing age.

Given the buzz, the forward-thinking nature, and the anything-anytime spirit of Manhattan, I thought finding someone who could help me print the files would be a breeze. Seeking someone to hold my hand, I reached to a colleague that I knew was familiar with the intricacies of 3D printing. He couldn't help, he told me, but offered some folks who might.

Oh, and, he had a question for me: You know you are taking a legal risk, right?

2a. The legal issue

I did, but clearly not its full extent.

There are really three issues at play. The first question is whether or not the firearm is a legal weapon. The second is whether or not I could legally own it. The third is whether or not someone could make the parts for me.

Defense Distributed is very clear about the Liberator's legal status. It is a legal firearm provided you include a key component — a heavy slug of steel. The first part of the instructions DD provides addresses that slug:

Print (ONLY) the frame sideways (the shortest dimension is the Z axis). …

Once the frame is finished, epoxy a 1.19x1.19x0.99" block of steel in the 1.2x1.2x1.0" hole in front of the trigger guard. ...

Once the epoxy has tried, the steel is no longer removable, and is an integral part of the frame. Now your gun has ~6 ounces of steel and is thus considered a 'detectable' firearm. So now you can print all the other parts.

The logic goes like this. The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1998 insists that a weapon be able to be traced in a metal detector. Without that slug, the Liberator isn't, since it's made entirely of plastic.

The technicalities presented go a little further. Because the frame isn't considered a component of the weapon by itself, DD insists that you build the frame and insert the steel before printing anything else, as indicated above. That way, it's impossible for you to build an illegal weapon.

Building a gun is something of a philosophical exercise. At some point, like the Ship of Theseus, you have a collection of parts; at some point you have a firearm. Legally, it's generally more specific — and since most philosophical questions don't carry the risk of jail time if you answer wrong, nearly everyone I spoke with erred on the side of interpreting the law conservatively. Since the Liberator uses custom parts, it's primarily the detectability issue that DD is concerned about. Follow its instructions, and in DD's estimation the weapon is itself legal.

The next question was whether or not it was legal for me to have it in my possession. David Kennedy, the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at New York's John Jay College, was pretty clear that it wasn't.

New York City has a variety of permits that might apply in this case. The first that Kennedy cited was the "premises permit." With such a permit, I would be allowed to have a handgun in my home, transport it to a firing range while secured and unloaded, and use it at the firing range. When I was done, same process in reverse.

I was very much not allowed to carry it in public. For that, I would need a carry permit. For that, I'd need to demonstrate "specific need" — like being a security guard. Those, he said, were rarely granted. And "without the possession of one of those two permits," Kennedy told me, "you are not permitted to carry a handgun in New York City." I indeed had neither.

The third question ended up being the biggest one. Could a business or other third party legally print the pieces for me?

Setting aside the issue of the steel slug, no expert I spoke with felt that the printing establishments bore much risk. I spoke with James Jacobs, professor of Constitutional Law and the Courts at New York University. "If the law says it is unlawful to make the gun or part of the gun without a license," he said, you can't do it. Otherwise, "you can do what is not proscribed."

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has a FAQ on gun manufacture. Barring machine guns and some shotguns:

Firearms may be lawfully made by persons who do not hold a manufacturer’s license under the GCA provided they are not for sale or distribution and the maker is not prohibited from receiving or possessing firearms.

Sounds good. But there's a bit of philosophy tucked in there. What is "for sale" in this case? Does hiring someone to print a piece of a gun count as selling a gun part? The printers I spoke with weren't generally interested in testing that line. That is, once I found some printers.

2b. Finding a printer

Searches for "3D printing" are not terribly fruitful, despite this being the future and all. A look on Google did indicate that Makerbot, a well-known manufacturer of 3D printers, had a small shop in lower Manhattan. I went there, introduced myself and asked if they printed objects on demand. They don't. It was shortly after I explained what I wanted to print that someone came from behind the counter and recommended I contact Makerbot's PR person.

Shapeways, a company that allows you to upload design files that others can buy and have shipped, has printing facilities in Long Island City, across the East River from Manhattan. When I explained what I wanted to print, the response was unequivocal. The site doesn't allow weaponry "of any kind" to be posted.

Additionally, we have certain checks in place throughout the entire printing process to ensure that these items don't get printed. To host any weaponry on our site, Shapeways would legally need a firearms license, which we do not possess, nor intend to.

This is called erring on the side of caution.

I ended up finding two different firms that were willing to explore the idea of helping me print the components. With various caveats.


Image from Defense Distributed.

2c. Printing it

My goal, as I indicated at the outset, was to see how easily and quickly I could get my hands on a working firearm. I wanted to walk into some Brooklyn storefront, lay out a hundred bucks or so, hang around for half an hour, and walk out with my DIY gun kit.

The Brooklyn part was right. But 3D printing, still being a young technology, is slow. The two firms I spoke with each suggested that printing the various small parts would take hours — eight hours in one's estimation.

Nor would it necessarily be cheap. The firm that ultimately offered to do the printing suggested that, given the number of objects and the fact that it was important to ensure that they were well-milled and that I wanted it quickly, the final price would be a bit above my budget: $1,500. My editor respectfully declined to authorize a cost that was higher than either a 3D printer itself or a brand new AR-15 rifle.

It wasn't only the short timeframe and the scale of the thing that raised the price. Both firms were nervous about the prospect of doing the printing. One noted that we lived in "Bloomberg's New York," which residents of Bloomberg's New York will understand. It's an interesting experiment, but it's also a novel exploration of the legal issues surrounding the manufacture of guns. That can be off-putting. The tempered assurances of a writer on a deadline were not enough to assuage any concerns.

The $1,500 was an offer in hand. The other firm I spoke with had a significantly lower price, but similar concerns. It offered that it would normally charge $80 for similar printing — $10 an hour — but it quickly became clear that it wasn't terribly interested in doing the job. It suggested reaching out to maker spaces — communal hubs offering the tools do-it-yourselfers would need to complete a project. I called a few, but — given the limited resources and learning curve required — quickly gave up. This step was functionally equivalent to buying a 3D printer and doing it myself, which was not the route I wanted to take.

John Jay's David Kennedy put it best.

The panic that this is causing is completely unfounded. It's not that hard to build a crude, working firearm, call it a zip gun, call it whatever you want. It is a lot easier and would be a lot easier to fabricate something with existing materials than it would be to set up a printer and build one of these things. Home manufactured firearms are a next-to-non-existent problem anywhere. I don't think this changes anything very much.

Zip guns — firearms manufactured from materials like rubber bands and pipe and wood — have been around for decades. They are probably less tedious to assemble, being composed, as they are, of things you can get at a hardware store. They're less ambiguously illegal, of course, but they have another distinct advantage: They may be safer.

2d. Surviving

When I first reached out to my colleague who does 3D printing, he noted that I would probably want to do a denser print. Normally, the slicing done by the computer that operates the computer results in about 20 percent density. In order for the firearm to be more durable — which, he wrote, "I'd assume you'd want this to be" — you'd print at a higher density, which is also slower.

He's right. I would want it to be dense. Shooting a gun is, at its most basic level, the creation of a small explosion that propels a piece of metal in the right direction. Last month, a squirrel hunter tried to create an ad hoc weapon by taping a bullet to the end of a BB gun. The explosion was not controlled, and pieces of metal propelled into his legs and arms.

When Defense Distributed tried to test the Liberator for that video above, they first tried to trigger it with a lengthy piece of string, Mythbusters-style.

Once that worked, they tested it by hand. Since the lifespan of the roughly-finished weapon is described in the instructions as "1 round" — primarily because of internal damage to smaller parts — it seemed like a good thing to test first.

We are still early, very early, in the lifespan of 3D printing. The Defense Distributed announcement may indeed be symbolic of some near future when 3D printers become more commonplace, designs for printable weapons become more refined, and the legal boundaries become more obvious and well-known. But as of right now, printing your own gun is not a feasible enterprise. At least not for your average guy who writes for websites. When I told my wife that I might be home late because I could be headed to Brooklyn to make a gun, she responded by text. "Um that sounds scary and dangerous," she said. "Can you not get arrested or shot?"

If you insist.

Photo (top): Still from a Defense Distributed YouTube video.