Unlike regular printers, 3-D printers are tiny factories: the printing they do is more like sculpting and given a block of plastic, they can whittle it down to pretty much any shape you wish. The shapes can’t be too big or intricate, but if the creation can be split into parts, you can print each part individually and put them together to form a more complex gadget. These automated sculptors have been around for a few years and are becoming more mainstream — so much so, that several companies now exist that will print out your designs if you send them a 3-D model. Most people use the process to make replacement parts of plastic that break from their kids’ toys or a widget that’s no longer sold, or even tiny sculptures. But now one gun-enthusiast made a rifle almost entirely from 3-D printed material.
Almost, because you can’t make a gun out of plastic — the bullet needs to be fired inside a metallic structure. But everything else was made by him, and he fired off 200 rounds with no sign of wear and tear on the printed material. What this means is that he has a fairly untraceable gun. It hasn’t been registered anywhere, it has no serial number and if he wanted it that way, no one would ever know it existed but him. He still needed the metal parts from an actual gun, but at some point in the future, 3-D printers will be able to carve out metal, too. And at that point, anyone will be able to make all the guns and bullets they could ever want, without any background checks.
It’s hard to imagine what the government will do about this, because short of banning 3-D printers, there don’t seem to be many options. And the banning of the printers will never happen because there are too many legitimate uses for them, and because it would be an infringement on free speech, akin to banning typewriters because someone might use them to write death threats. So maybe the future will just be a place in which more people have guns, or all clothing is made out of kevlar. In any case, it’s clear that this is yet another example of technology putting a lot of power into an individual’s hands.