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Monday, December 10 Business

Dan Haar: The gun industry’s ho-hum approach to 3D printing

A quick online search for “3D guns and Ruger” shows a 2016 YouTube video with an unnamed master gun technician demonstrating his 3D-printed Sturm Ruger 10/22 model rifle.

It’s a tad scary for anyone who fears the widespread expansion of untraceable, hard-to-detect firearms. For gun enthusiasts, it’s just another cool gadget video.

The host, billed as “Guy in a garage,” fires off 10 rounds at a target. Back at his bench, he shows viewers the rifle parts — including the receiver, heart of the weapon.

“When you print them, the threads are already done for you,” the host says. “It holds everything into the stock.”

He holds up a short barrel. “It was 60 inches, I cut it down to, I don’t know, about 6 inches. And this made kind of a fun pistol. ... I also got kind of crazy and made one that would fit an AR-15 pistol grip.”

Whoa, an AR-15, military-style grip. Since the 10/22 rifle is semi-automatic, that could make the modified version illegal in Connecticut.

You can see where this is going. Now the 3D printing of firearms has exploded onto the national consciousness with a Texas case that threatens to unleash blueprints for AR-15’s onto the weboshere — where any of us, supposedly, can download them and turn out deadly weapons made of plastic.

Anyone with a whole lot of time, skill and tens of thousands of dollars, that is.

The question suddenly is this: Are 3D-printed guns the looming catastrophe that gun-control advocates portray? Do they need to be stopped now before they get out of control?

Maybe they’re merely an “overblown” worry that “does not present a new problem or likely threat to law enforcement.” That’s the view of Larry Keane, general counsel at the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, whose blog posts — such as the one Wednesday about 3D printing — serve as a steady, calming, unshrill industry voice.

The answer lies somewhere in between, as usual. For now, we have many bigger threats including my favorite, lawn and household chemicals. But of course, technology changes fast especially in emerging areas such as 3D printing.

So, what should we do?

And why isn’t the gun industry worried about losing business to home hacks? That matters in Connecticut, where we have Ruger in Fairfield, Charter Arms in Shelton, Colt in West Hartford, O.S. Mossberg in North Haven, the former Stag Arms in New Britain and a lot of smaller players, not to mention history in Bridgeport and New Haven; and Keane’s NSSF, which represents the whole industry.

Many elected officials, chiefly Democrats, are calling for outright bans of any “ghost guns,” those without a serial number from a federally licensed manufacturer. That might make sense except that, as everyone agrees, 3D printing is here to stay and regulating it will become harder and harder.

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Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has a more immediate goal — to stop the release of 3D gun blueprints by Defense Distributed, a Texas firm headed by a dude who’s determined to end all gun-control laws by making them obsolete.

“I don’t think it will take more than one successful plane hijacking,” Jepsen said Friday, “to bring home the risk of allowing the proliferation of these kinds of weapons.”

It was, as expected, the lawless and irresponsible actions of the current occupant of the Oval Office that set all this in motion. Defense Distributed lost its attempt in court to snub U.S. State Department rules against releasing the plans. His appeal went all the way the the Supreme Court, which declined to hear his appeal.

And yet, in June, the Trump administration not only cut a deal with the Texas firm allowing the release as of Aug. 1, it paid the company $40,000 in fees — a big screw-you to the court system.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Jepsen, who is not usually given to such statements.

Jepsen joined the top lawyers from seven other states and the District of Columbia Monday in a successful, 11:59th-hour bid to halt the release. On Thursday, the list of states in the case grew to 20.

But what, really, is the threat? Keane points out that for decades we’ve had a cadre of unlicensed people making guns with machine tools on their own, and we don’t have a crisis of ghost guns. Anyway, criminals can and do file off the serial numbers, and they can certainly buy guns cheap on the street.

“Firearms regardless of how they are manufactured are regulated,” Keane wrote. “While it makes for a scary headline, the fact is that it is illegal to produce an ‘undetectable’ firearm.”

Federal airport screeners at TSA say they can detect the 3d guns now out there but of course we don’t know how reliably, and checks at stadiums are far looser.

In Shelton, Nick Ecker doesn’t believe the hype about 3D guns. He’s the owner of Charter Arms, a maker of several models of revolvers, with about 25 employees — down from a peak of 45. They’re plastic models, he said — not the real deal, and no one can just go out and make a working gun purely using a home machine.

Besides, Ecker said, the bigger problem — gun show sales loopholes that get around criminal background checks — is easy to fix and the government won’t do it.

As for banning 3D guns, or at least regulating them much more tightly, “that’s fine, it wouldn’t bother me at all,” Ecker said Friday.

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, has developed steadily over the last 15 years. Basically, it uses programmed robot arms to build complex parts speck by speck, using either powdered metal or plastic polymers. In East Hartford, Pratt & Whitney uses it to make critical jet engine parts on its latest geared turbofan engines.

We assume the big gunmakers are tinkering with the process, but they’re not talking. So we know the technology will zoom ahead the way smart phones have.

“Five or 10 years from now the way things move rapidly in the tech world it could be a radically different situation,” Jepsen said. “The real person who wants to print a 3D gun is either someone who can’t acquire guns by conventional means ... or they are someone who wants a gun that can’t be traced or detected.”

Keane isn’t wrong; the threat is not significant in 2018. And Eckert is not wrong; there are many bigger issues in the firearms safety realm. And so, as we breathe easier even knowing the blueprints will, sooner or later, bleed into the public domain, there’s no reason for states like Connecticut not to ban plastic, homemade firearms outright.

It won’t save lives today, but it might someday. And anyway, the gun industry will thank us for it.

dhaar@hearstmediact.com

Dan Haar|Columnist and Associate Editor

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