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Guns and 3D printing: Making gun parts virtually from scratch

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During his State of the Union address earlier this month, President Barack Obama spoke of three-dimensional printing and its potential to transform industry in the United States.

Travis Lerol uses his 3D printer to make plastic gun parts. Photo by Kris Van Cleave.
Lerol's printer is one of the smallest and most affordable 3D systems on the market. Photo by Kris Van Cleave.
Lerol loads a gun made partially with printed, plastic parts. Photo by Kris Van Cleave.

But its also transforming the gun debate. It's now possible for people using relatively inexpensive devices to become their own gunsmiths.

Some say its just an extension of the Second Amendment while others on Capitol Hill say it's a threat to public safety.

Tucked away in the spare bedroom of a Glen Burnie apartment, some would say that is the sound of progress - of technology allowing Travis Lerol, 30, to do something a year ago he could not.

Lerol, a software engineer, is working with a $1,300 3D printer. It prints in hard plastic and he's using it to make gun parts.

“I'm going to take to range soon and give it a test,” said Lerol of the printed parts of his semi-automatic rifle.

A group in Texas claims it's used a 3D printer to make components for an assault rifle. The group has also posted its designs online for others to download.

Kevin Armentrout's company, ABC Imaging, does industrial-grade 3D printing. He says even his high-end equipment can't make a working gun.

“Right now I don't think the technology is there just yet,” said Armentrout. “Especially not on a consumer level.”

While it’s possible to make gun parts, the concern by some is that as this printing technology gets better, somebody could fabricate an entire weapon at home and it would be completely untraceable.

New York Congressman Steve Israel, a democrat, is trying to make it illegal for people to use 3D printers to make guns or gun parts by renewing the Undetectable Firearms Act which is set to expire at the end of the year.

“I don't want to sit back and let terrorists to literally use 3D printers to manufacture plastic guns and plastic guns parts, put them on planes bring them anywhere they want and fire them and injure my constituents or anybody else,” said Rep. Israel.

Israel says he is not trying to regulate the 3D printing industry. But he doesn’t want people making untraceable and undetectable guns at home.

The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 makes it illegal to manufacture or possess any firearm that is not as detectable by walk-through metal detectors. The act was renewed in 2003, signed by President Bush and set to expire on 12/31/13.

“I don't think there's any practical danger of someone printing an untraceable weapon,” said Lerol. “And if they did the round would set off metal detectors.”

It’s a growing debate over technology that's changing what's possible with its every move.

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