Urban Wire This science fiction weapon won’t lead to a real life crime wave
Samuel Bieler
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Media Name: 3dgun_illustration_small-01.jpg

It sounds like a movie scene set in the future: a criminal desperate for a gun doesn’t have to go far to get one. Rather than stealing a weapon or buying one on the black market, he goes to his computer and hits “print.” One by one, the pieces of a gun take shape. These he quickly assembles and, in the next moment, he’s on the street, armed and dangerous.

If this sounds like dystopian fiction, you’ve missed the news cycle of the past week where commentators and policymakers have been sounding off about the danger of guns made with 3D printing technology. Some have called them a “boon for criminals,” while others, policymakers included, have suggested that keeping these weapons “off the streets” should be a key priority.

First came the Liberator: a low-power, single-shot, mostly plastic weapon created on a $1,700 3D printer with $25 in materials. The Liberator’s record is mixed: some have successfully fired nine rounds, others have misfired or even exploded. On the heels of the Liberator came a full-metal printed gun. Modeled on the famous 1911 pistol, it fired 600 large-caliber rounds. These weapons have media and federal authorities concerned that obtaining firearms may soon be a simple process.

But this oversells the danger posed by 3D guns. To understand why, we have to understand the average criminal. While every Hollywood criminal may be a seasoned gunman, real criminals often have no idea how to operate a firearm. Even criminals with guns often don’t know how to load a weapon or select the proper ammunition. This will make 3D guns, which must be assembled and loaded after being printed, even more challenging to use than normal guns.

And before using a 3D weapon, criminals will have to face an even bigger challenge: finding one. Criminals commonly get their weapons through theft, corrupt firearm retailers, and black markets; 3D weapons are likely to impact none of these channels.

  • Annual gun theft estimates range from approximately 200,000 to more than half a million, from a national stock of more than 310 million weapons. Against this existing store, the limited number of 3D weapons will not significantly increase opportunities for theft, especially compared with the steady stream of conventionally made arms rolling off production lines.
  • Corrupt firearms dealers may supply criminals, though the scope of this problem is unclear. Some research suggests that dealers are only minor actors in the criminal weapons supply, while other reports suggest that they may divert a significant number of weapons to criminals. Either way, with access to a low-cost supply of conventional weapons, there is little need for dealers to offer 3D guns, either through pre-sale diversion or through exploitation of the laxer sales standards at gun shows.

Operating as an independent black-market dealer is difficult: selling $25 Liberators for $50, a 100 percent markup, would require 68 sales just to break even on the cost of the printer. The average number of sales a black-market broker makes in a Chicago neighborhood? Sixteen. Moreover, dealing in bulk increases the risk of police detection as there must be more sales, each of which could be to a police informant. The 3D gun is simply not suited to the needs of illegal markets, and until that changes, don’t expect to see them on the black market.

None of this is to say that 3D guns don’t pose real homeland security dangers. For terrorists, the limited tactical capabilities of 3D weapons, especially plastic ones, may be less important than their ability to create fear and uncertainty, infiltrate secure locations, or force the development of expensive new security protocols. A “click, print, and fire” crime wave, however, will likely remain science fiction for a very long time.

Gun illustration by Daniel Wolfe, Urban Institute

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Forensic science Policing and community safety
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center