The ghost gun debate has been a boogeyman of firearm reform discussions since at least 2013, when Defense Distributed's now-infamous 3D-printed "Liberator" pistol first burst onto the scene. The brain child of self-described crypto-anarchist Cody Wilson, who recently agreed to register as a sex offender as part of a plea bargain to get out of some even worse charges, the Liberator occupies a complicated legal and ethical grey area. On one hand, the idea of unregistered, untraceable guns made of mostly plastic sparks all the worst fears of deranged killers sneaking guns onto airplanes and generally acting with malicious intent. On the other hand, there's a major free speech issue at hand with governments censoring the distribution of information simply on the grounds that someone might do something with that information within the confines of their private property.
But lost in all this debate is the question: are 3D-printed plastic guns actually any good?
For Vice, Keegan Hamilton got deep into the 3D-printed culture by building his own gun and attending the first-ever shooting competition exclusively for plastic guns, as seen in the video above. And it's actually a pretty fascinating at what 3D-printing guns entails:
Having never owned a 3D-printer or a gun, I started as a blank slate. Rob Pincus, a personal defense instructor and gun rights advocate, agreed to lend expertise and a 3D-printer. He warned the printing and building process would take at least two days, which he said contradicts the notion that it's easy for people who want to misuse guns to simply 3D-print one.
"You have to want to do it this way," Pincus said. "I don't know who the person is that falls into the weird zone where they don't want to buy a gun, they can't buy a gun, but they really want a gun and this is the path of least resistance, as opposed to finding somebody to buy a gun for them or buying a gun illegally out of somebody's trunk somewhere."
For one thing, it takes multiple days of 3D-printing to make one, which was time I didn't have before the match. There's also a shortage of ghost gun parts on the internet—in part due to a recent buying spree amid the Biden's administration efforts to tighten the laws.
I ultimately settled on the Glock 19, as its essential parts were readily available online. The barrel, slide, trigger assembly, and other metal bits cost around $320, shipped directly to the gun range in Florida hosting the match, along with a $23 spool of PLA+ filament. That plus a standard 3D-printer and a couple boxes of 9mm ammo was almost all I needed.
This might not bring comfort to those who were already concerned about the supposed threat of ghost guns. But it is still helpful — and depressingly rare — to find a story that actually engages so openly with the issue. There are some remarkable technological advancements at hand here as well, for better or for worse. Once that kind of thing is out there, you can't just make it disappear, and our society will have to grapple with that.
I 3D-Printed a Glock to See How Far Homemade Guns Have Come [Keegan Hamilton / Vice]
What's at stake in the fight over printing files for guns [Cory Doctorow / BoingBoing]
Meet The 'Liberator': Test-Firing The World's First Fully 3D-Printed Gun [Andy Greenberg / Forbes]
What Makes a Gun a Ghost Gun? [Alain Stephens / The Trace]
Ghost Guns: What They Are, and Why They Are an Issue Now [Annie Karni / The New York Times]