Why the first 3D-printed gun shouldn’t freak people out

When University of Texas law student Cody Wilson 3D successfully fired a 3D printed plastic gun earlier this year, people freaked out. And rightly so: Plastic guns could slip through security checkpoints because they don’t trigger metal detectors. 3D printers that print plastic are already trickling into homes, potentially allowing just about anyone with the right files to print a gun.

News from 3D printing company Solid Concepts revealed we are nowhere near done with the 3D printed gun conversation: The company announced today that it has successfully 3D printed and fired a metal gun.

“We’re proving this is possible, the technology is at a place now where we can manufacture a gun with 3D metal printing,” vice president of additive manufacturing Kent Firestone said in a statement. “And we’re doing this legally. In fact, as far as we know, we’re the only 3D printing service provider with a Federal Firearms License (FFL). Now, if a qualifying customer needs a unique gun part in five days, we can deliver.”

It’s not a surprising development. Selective laser sintering 3D printers, which use a laser to seal molecules of powdered materials like metal together, are already turning out highly specialized metal parts. NASA used one earlier this year to print a rocket engine, as did SpaceX. 3D printers create parts with no seams, which means less weak segments that can lead to breaks and catastrophic failures.

While rocket engines are exciting science, guns are scary. But metal guns don’t pose the same problems as plastic guns. They set off metal detectors. 3D printers that work in metal generally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and require experts to operate them, which means they aren’t going to appear in the home, or even garage, anytime soon.

Based on the trajectory plastic-based printers have taken in the last decade, it’s not crazy to think that affordable metal 3D printers could appear in the future. But until then, there’s no reason to worry about professional 3D printers building guns. Solid Concepts is licensed to make guns. And like NASA or SpaceX, it’s just looking for ways to improve upon existing industries with 3D printing.