3D printers can turn plastic filament into a functioning firearm — this is the reality in a society dealing with mass shootings that have become a relatively common occurence.
3D printers can be found in a handful of buildings at Weber State University thanks to decreasing costs. Wattis Business, Mariott Allied Health and Tracy Hall Science Center all have 3D printers available to students and faculty.
They are also affordable for individuals to purchase online, with competitive pricing available from many online marketplaces.
Displayed outside the new Innovation Lab in Wattis 218 are a variety of student-created designs — snowboarding and pest control tools, and a car wash foamer. However, one prototype is unique, and that is the 3D-printed lower receiver for an AR-15.
Although the single part is inoperable on its own, downloading and printing a file could actually mean constructing a gun despite the limitations and legalities.
The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which was renewed for another 10 years in 2013, declared firearms that cannot be detected by a walk-through metal detector illegal. Guns need to have at least 3.7 oz of metal and the shape of a traditional handgun in order to comply with the law. 3D-printed guns have the potential to skirt this law with their easily-accessible online designs, which may or may not account for the metal additions or traditional shapes as required by law.
3D-printed guns are different from regularly purchased guns because they are not traceable, can go through a metal detector unnoticed and don’t involve a background check.
Jeff Clements, a Professor of Emerging Information Technology, whose course uses the Innovation Lab, said the devices open potentially-concerning doors regarding gun ownership.
“If they are a convicted felon or shouldn’t own a gun, and have access to a 3D printer, with the knowledge and skills, they could produce a gun,” said Clements.
“One of the limitations is that it’s made out of plastic. It would only last so long,” Clements said. “You would only get a certain number of shots through it before it would melt.”
While 3D printing, in theory, has the potential to allow anyone to own a gun, the technology offers a variety of benefits. In Clements’ Emerging Technology course, the students are able to create prototypes and designs through the 3D printing for products while working with companies.
“We have had 3D printing in classes in a small way for about two years. The new Innovation Lab here at the business school just opened this semester,” said Clements. “We have begun producing and prototyping things in this different and new space.”
Clements mentioned that it would be difficult for 3D-printed weapons to be produced here on campus.
“In regards to student access, could a student come here and produce weapons on a mass scale? That would be hard to do, although, the files are available,” said Clements. “Certainly, 3D printers are cheap. You can find them online for $100. Anyone with a printer and the know-how can download the files and produce them.”
“That display right there,” Clements said, gesturing toward the 3D-printed AR-15 lower receiver. “In Australia, they’d arrest me, because there it’s illegal, but here, it is a good piece to open up the conversation so we can talk about it.”
Recently, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida has tried to ban the publication of 3D-printed gun designs through legislation. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, however, blocked the efforts on grounds that it violates free speech.
Although 3D-printed weapons and parts may pose a threat, the future of 3D printing, particularly on campus here at Weber State, appears to be an increasingly accessible medium for educational innovation and creativity.