Should We Fear 3D Printed Guns? (with Matthew Larosiere)

Matthew Larosiere joins us to discuss how his interest in the design and development of weapons is controversial.

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Matthew Larosiere joins us to discuss how his interest in the design and development of weapons is controversial. Larosiere argues that most people agree that everyone should be able to defend themselves. However, most people do not understand that “aimed fire” is actually more effective than peppering bullets hoping to hit your target. The “aimed fire” technique is actually the most utilized military tactic because it results in a higher level of precision and accuracy. 

Larosiere also touches on how 3D-printed guns have been in the spotlight in recent news. The outrage about 3D-printed guns arose because many people did not understand that, in the United States, there is no law against manufacturing your own gun, in your home, for personal use. There are, of course, laws that prevent the sale and exportation of homemade guns, but it is not illegal to have a hobby, need, or want to manufacture your own gun.

Why would anyone own a gun? What is the most effective mechanism to defend yourself? What is the difference between an automatic and semiautomatic weapon? What is a bump stock? Does magazine capacity matter at all? Is there something wrong with collecting things that inflict harm on others?

Further Reading:

The fight over 3D-printed gun plans has nothing to do with the Second Amendment, written by Matthew Larosiere

Yes, Washington, The First Amendment Even Protects Firearm Blueprints, written by Ilya Shapiro and Matthew Larosiere

Losing Count: The Empty Case for “High-Capacity” Magazine Restrictions, written by Matthew Larosiere

Related Content:

Rigth to Print Arms, Building Tomorrow Episode

Guns and Mass Shootings, Free Thoughts Episode

00:00 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:08 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Matt Larosiere, a legal associate at the Cato Institute. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Matt.

00:14 Matthew Larosiere: Thanks for having me.

00:16 Trevor Burrus: Now, why would anyone own a gun?

00:19 Matthew Larosiere: Well, there’s several reasons. One, they look really cool. That’s the most important one. But no, there’s countless reasons people own guns. There are still a small segment of the population that use them for hunting very regularly.

00:38 Trevor Burrus: I think that’s going down, though, isn’t it?

00:39 Matthew Larosiere: Yeah, yeah, no, well, which is good. As food becomes easier to get, there’s less and less people that depend on the ability to harvest squirrels. But the most important reason from a legal perspective and from a societal perspective is the simple reality that there are instances where people will be subject to illegal force, like attacked or burgled or what have you. And those people ought to have a effective mechanism to defend themselves. They shouldn’t have to depend on physical strength or skill if they haven’t done anything wrong.

01:13 Trevor Burrus: But I think it’s interesting that, for you, you have a different kit that you did not bring up, which is there’s also hobbyists.

01:21 Matthew Larosiere: Right. No, and of course there’s…

01:22 Trevor Burrus: The guns are interesting just mechanically, and that’s another reason.

01:27 Matthew Larosiere: Yeah, no, not only interesting mechanically. If you’re an engineer, you could be fascinated by developments in different semi-automatic weapons. And if you’re like me, and you have military history in your family, I am just utterly fascinated by collecting weapons of the French military and just how different and bizarre they can be, and I get a lot of satisfaction from just collecting these stupid guns.

01:55 Aaron Ross Powell: But isn’t there something, I guess, wrong with getting satisfaction from collecting things designed to inflict horrific harm on others? You can say like, “Well, my hobby is collecting pathogens, [laughter] and I just love them, and I love looking at them.” But we’d say, “Well, that’s all cool and all, but those things are dangerous.”

02:17 Matthew Larosiere: Well, I think, first of all, hobbyists generally are frowned upon by the broader public. People think that comic book collectors are odd, and we make fun of them. But I think guns are a particularly divisive subject, but people collect swords, like people will put up medieval swords and have done it for ages and no one ever says, “Now, why would you want a sword? That’s for lopping off limbs, and it’s horrifying.” It’s just, there’s something about guns that our societal conscious has more freely associated with their use as a weapon. Whereas there’s tons of other things people collect that if you spend too much time harping on it, you can come to odd situations like spiders or snakes. It’s, “Why would you want a horrible snake that could choke you and it’s venomous?” But there’s all these… We don’t look at somebody who has a snake collection… Like I said, society, there are hobbyists, they’re considered odd, but we don’t put that same onus on them that, “You’re collecting killing machines.”

03:19 Trevor Burrus: My brother used to collect snakes, and I always thought it was very weird, so I have some sympathy for that.

03:23 Aaron Ross Powell: And you probably have enough guitar pedals.

03:25 Trevor Burrus: And I do have enough guitar pedals. Yes, collecting is interesting, but it is true. Guns are interesting, but I’ll grant that a 1875 French firearm with a really interesting firing mechanism or beautiful carving or something like that is interesting by itself. But why would anyone wanna own an AR-15?

03:42 Aaron Ross Powell: Oh, and just by the way, Trevor and I have related at length about our collections. [laughter] Guitar pedals.

03:48 Trevor Burrus: Yes. The weirdness of collectors, but even you have your gun collection. But AR-15s seem totally different. Why would anyone want to own an AR-15?

03:56 Matthew Larosiere: AR-15s are fascinating in that, really, if you’re interested in weapons design and development, like I am, the AR-15 basically terminated weapons developments. That was the end. There has been no more… At least in the 60 or 70 years since it was first designed, there has been no substantial developments in firearm operating mechanisms. The AR-15 has pretty much been the end. Even the newest, most high-tech weapons all trace their roots to the AR-15 in terms of locking mechanism and how the action works.

04:33 Trevor Burrus: And first of all, the AR-15 is not just a gun, right?

04:36 Matthew Larosiere: Right. It’s a pattern.

04:37 Trevor Burrus: It’s a pattern. Can you explain more what that means?

04:39 Matthew Larosiere: Okay, so the M16A1 is a gun. You can point to it, and that is a particular firearm that it looks one way. The AR-15 is a basic set of principles and standardizations that can apply to all kinds of different weapons. Like we have the AR-15 which is the general principle for any civilian sporting version of the same system, the M16, the M4A1. And then there’s like, weird Danish versions, and they’re all the AR pattern.

05:13 Trevor Burrus: And so you can build one yourself, too, correct?

05:16 Matthew Larosiere: Yeah.

05:17 Trevor Burrus: And they’re modular to some degree.

05:19 Matthew Larosiere: They’re completely modular, and that’s the main advantage.

05:22 Aaron Ross Powell: So what is it about them that ended progress in development?

05:26 Matthew Larosiere: Okay, so they are extremely… It’s just a good design. It’s sealed off from dirt and dust. Common knowledge says that the AK-47 is the most reliable firearm. Well, actually tests show that the AR-15 is better sealed against dust and debris. It is a very simple mechanism to an extent, and very repeatable, reliable performance that it’s just very dependable, is the best way I could say it. It doesn’t have a lot of quirks.

05:55 Trevor Burrus: Yes, yeah, you can fire as quickly as you pull the trigger, correct? That’s semi-automatic. And that can be pretty quick with an AR-15.

06:03 Aaron Ross Powell: So, to understand, and people get confused between the terms “semi-automatic” and “automatic.” To understand these terms, we really have to go back to the turn of the century where weapons were typically manually operated. You’d fire a shot, you would manually operate the action.

06:19 Trevor Burrus: Like cock it back.

06:20 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, cock it, whatever.

06:22 Trevor Burrus: Bolt action.

06:24 Aaron Ross Powell: Exactly, or a shotgun pump action… Something like that was always required. Then, when we came out with semi-automatic firearms, they were typically referred to as self-loaders. But over the course of different languages, like the French referred to them as “fusils automatiques,” automatic rifles, and it was because they automatically loaded themselves. You weren’t having to perform these manual actions. The British Howell automatic rifle was a mechanism that bolted on to a bolt action rifle and automated the system of cocking it. Then later on with machine guns rising to prevalence, fully-automatic fire means that you hold the trigger down one time and the weapon does all of the rest. So there’s no resetting of the trigger, there’s no additional input aside from the feeding of the ammunition. Semi-automatic fire is you pull the trigger and the firearm will do everything it needs to do to fire one shot. So you pull the trigger and then automatically the bolt kicks out this empty case, loads a new round, and then is ready for you to do it again, to fire the next shot.

07:27 Trevor Burrus: Okay, but you can still fire pretty quickly with an AR-15. You can’t just hold down the trigger on a civilian one that you haven’t modified, at least.

07:35 Matthew Larosiere: No, and all you have to do is pull the trigger, which is not a tremendous feat for most people.

07:40 Aaron Ross Powell: Is that why the bump stocks got around?

07:43 Matthew Larosiere: Well, so yeah, the bump stocks are a fascinating thing in that… This is all getting down to really legal, technical interpretations of firearm law. The National Firearms Act regulates who can possess a machine gun. And a machine gun is defined by any weapon that can fire automatically more than one shot with a single function of the trigger. And so the understanding has been that the trigger’s actual physical actuation, so the trigger moving backwards by the press of a finger, isn’t a function. And so the bump stock is basically just a very… I describe it as a very bad gun stock because a gun stock is supposed to keep a gun steady; a bump stock allows the gun to a certain degree of movement, back and forth. And so by putting forward pressure, you’re actually causing yourself to pull the trigger and then the recoil…

08:38 Trevor Burrus: So you pull the gun forward, correct?

08:40 Matthew Larosiere: Yes.

08:40 Trevor Burrus: Essentially, you hold it against your shoulder, pull it with your hand that would be supporting… The support hand and keep your finger locked on the trigger.

08:49 Matthew Larosiere: Exactly.

08:51 Trevor Burrus: And then when it fires, it’ll recoil and then it’ll do it again, kind of automatically.

08:55 Matthew Larosiere: Well, it takes a degree of skill to do, which is kind of the funny thin, g because the AR-15 has really not much recoil. You can easily overcome it with your forward pressure and the bump stock won’t work at all. So you have to kind of practice with holding it just right and putting just the right amount of forward pressure on it to make it actually bump back and cycle. But all that gets back to the issue here is people always say, “Well, why would you want something that fires so many shots?” Or, “What is the legitimate need for that?” And that’s a really complicated issue. And it’s because a weapon’s efficacy is limited by its recoil, no matter what its rate of fire is. And what people have to understand is that, no modern military uses fully-automatic machine gun fire in regular soldier-on-soldier engagements. They use semi-automatic fire, because that is the best way to hit your target.

09:53 Matthew Larosiere: Machine gun fire is used to suppress an area, to keep people from, like if you wanted to keep people from going down a hallway, you would pepper machine gun fire down that direction as just a deterrent. Aimed fire is the most effective mechanism for actually hitting your target. And so, no matter how fast your gun shoots, you need to put it back on target to shoot again, so it really doesn’t matter. This is why magazine capacity doesn’t matter that much, because there comes a point where you get diminishing returns, and we’ve pretty much reached that point now with AR-15s. They recoil very little, but it’s still enough to disrupt you, and you have to put it back on target. You get any less power than that and the round is really not very effective. So it doesn’t really make much of a difference if you have a fully automatic fire. You may get more rounds down range, but your hit rate is going to go down a lot. You need to, like I said, the main point here is that you need to actually, after every shot, recoil impulse hits the shooter, throws the gun off target, the shooter has to competently put it back on target for the gun to do anything aside from just spraying lead.

11:06 Aaron Ross Powell: So a lot of people who are pro-Second Amendment, pro-gun, anti-gun control get frustrated during debates about gun control, especially the kinds of debates that happen just after a shooting because they say, “Look, the people making these arguments for gun control don’t understand all the stuff that you just told us about. They don’t get the difference between semi-automatic and automatic. They don’t understand what the bump stocks should do. They don’t understand why people would use one gun over another, and so on. They get calibers mixed up,” whatever. Why is that a cogent concern or objection? If the issue at hand is everything you’ve just described is just factors of how effective these things are at doing what they were designed to do, which is put bullets at high speed into people or other things, that it seems like then all we really need to understand to have a debate about gun control is whether we think it’s okay that people have devices that are designed to do that. And if we don’t, then what mechanisms we can use to prevent them from having those sorts of devices. So why do all the details, the “you don’t know anything about guns” arguments matter at all in this discussion?

12:24 Matthew Larosiere: I think it’s because in this country, most people agree that somebody ought to be able to defend themselves if their life is actually in danger. I think in other countries, in other countries, that’s a totally different calculus. There are countries where they… Through legislation or what have you, they’ve decided that, “No, no, no. We think it’s better for society if people do not have the right to use deadly force in self-defense.” In America, that’s completely different. We’ve already had that discussion and we’ve decided that people should be able to defend themselves if they are subject to unlawful force.

13:00 Matthew Larosiere: So once we’ve made that decision, it then comes down to, when we’re moving things along at the margin with gun control, what are we going to do? And the reason these factors are important is because the whole point of having a gun for self-defense is that it’s an effective mechanism for defending yourself. So, if the laws are being designed, which are, like we said, ignorant of how the weapon actually functions and what the purpose of its design is, it can actually… Well, clearly the intention of the bump stock bans or whatever is to prevent a catastrophe like what happened in Vegas. The result of these policies can be to actually cripple someone’s ability to use a firearm for self-defense. Now, I’m not saying bump stocks are effective for self-defense. Actually, I strongly argue that aimed fire is the only effective mechanism for self-defense, really. But when you group in the high capacity magazines, is something I often like to talk about, you have to imagine a world where it was perfectly implemented… So we got rid of all the 30-round magazines, there’s only 10-rounders, right? Now, imagine the very real possibility that somebody in a home is attacked by two armed criminals. Does it look completely fair, to use the term, if you can say that, “Oh, well, it’s alright because they all have 10 rounds.”

14:31 Trevor Burrus: Well, that seems like enough. [laughter] I mean, it does.

14:34 Matthew Larosiere: Well, it seems that way, doesn’t it? But then, when you actually…

14:38 Aaron Ross Powell: Depends on how good a shot you are.

14:39 Matthew Larosiere: Well, exactly. And there’s data that says average shooters have about a 30% to 40% hit probability at a typical engagement distance, which is between 15 and 25 feet. Expert shooters, and this is defined by Police Science Management Journal, so I don’t know what they consider an expert shooter, but expert shooters only had a 49% hit probability at typical engagement distances. You combine that with the fact that in the grand scheme of things, guns are not that lethal. Individual shots from an AR-15, I believe, and I don’t know this completely, but one shot from an AR-15 is, statistically, between 17% and 22% lethal. So you need to land multiple shots on target if you need to stop a threat.

15:34 Trevor Burrus: Well, do we really want to just kill them? We are all about non-lethal.

15:38 Matthew Larosiere: Right.

15:38 Trevor Burrus: Tasers, rubber bullets, things like this to stop people in many situations. So why don’t we just take rubber bullets and put them in our AR-15?

15:46 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, or just to modify that question, if it only has a 20% chance of killing someone, that’s not the same thing as it only has a 20% chance of stopping them.

15:53 Matthew Larosiere: Stopping them. Right. No, it’s not. It’s really unfortunate, but in life or death situations, the only way to actually stop somebody who is hopped up on adrenaline, and when guns are in the question, is to land either a debilitating or lethal shot, and that’s horrible. Nobody wants to be in that position. But we’re not making policy for video games. This is for real life where people’s lives are actually in danger, and there’s a clear aggressor and defender. We don’t want this situation to happen at all, but then when you recognize if it is going to happen, what do we want the defender to be able to do? So, if you take that situation, if you just hash out the math on the back of the envelope, the defender has 10 rounds, the attackers have 10 each. And also, if you are attacking somebody, if you are doing crime, if you are intending on being violent, you’re likely to bring spare magazines and it only takes a couple of seconds to reload.

16:53 Matthew Larosiere: If you are just a person who carries a gun for self-defense, or has a gun next to your night stand, what is the likelihood that you keep a belt of spares on you? And so, that’s why it’s a very complicated discussion. It’s not as simple as saying, “Oh, 10 rounds is enough.” And then also, different weapons have different capabilities and people should be able to choose for themselves whether they want a weapon that has more recoil, more power per shot, and holds less rounds, or a weapon that has less recoil, less lethal per shot, but they have more… If they’re not as good of a shot, they have more chances to hit their targets. These are all questions that I could never make for another person and that I, in my experience as a shooter, have made for myself. I don’t believe that there’s any principle policy that can draw that line for everybody.

17:43 Trevor Burrus: Now, it seems that I read about guns that accept very large capacity magazines. And we’re not talking about 10 rounds here or even 12, we’re talking about 50 or 100, which those magazines would seem to have little more the novelty use or complete carnage use in a standard setting. I don’t think many gun owners own a 50-round magazine, probably not, but if we’re talking about a high-capacity magazine, what is a high capacity magazine, in that regard?

18:15 Matthew Larosiere: So the way I would define it is a magazine that actually stretches the capacity of the weapon beyond what it was originally designed for. So an AR-15 was originally designed with a 20-round mag but then standardized to 30. I wouldn’t call that high capacity. It’s standard equipment. However, the Beta C magazine, which is this ridiculous-looking contraption like you describe, it really is a novelty, holds 100 rounds. That’s certainly a high-capacity magazine. It stretches the weapon beyond the limits of its original design. It requires odd external fixtures to function correctly. However, it’s still a complicated question. There’s a reason that the military didn’t standardize and that law enforcement didn’t standardize on 100-round magazines. You would think that even though reloading is so fast, it would be nice if our soldiers didn’t have to worry about it, right?

19:06 Matthew Larosiere: Well, the more rounds you put into a magazine, the more friction is imparted by each round, then it increases the likelihood of a jam. Actually, in the Aurora, Colorado shooting, the shooter employed one of these magazines, and within a few shots, it completely locked the weapon up and actually allowed people to escape. He fumbled with his weapon for quite some time before switching to another weapon. He didn’t actually clear the malfunction. So you don’t want to… I would never say it would actually be better off if they had these magazines…

19:39 Trevor Burrus: But there’s a reason people don’t use them in normal shooting circumstances.

19:42 Matthew Larosiere: Exactly. So there’s just not enough… I wouldn’t say there’s enough reason to obsess over it, because it’s just not particularly effective.

19:50 Trevor Burrus: Well, most shootings are mass shootings. So it would seem that you can do most crime with a 10-round magazine, if that’s what you wanna do.

19:58 Matthew Larosiere: Yeah, the average number of shots… I think it’s in Gary Kleck’s book, he looked over shootings that were mutual shootings with law enforcement officers. And so, this is your typical crimes that you’d think would be the biggest shootouts. And the average number of shots fired was like two and a half. And so, the instances… Again, this only matters in the incredibly rare instance where more than 10 rounds is fired.

20:24 Trevor Burrus: There was another thing where we talk about technology and what people know about guns, silencers. Now, if I’ve paid attention to my James Bond movies, silencers turn a gun into a dart gun, essentially, or a little thing, and they’re pretty much illegal. They’re regulated, but they’re pretty much illegal which, if that’s what they do, is probably a good thing.

20:49 Matthew Larosiere: I resist that. They’re not pretty much illegal. They fall under the same laws as machine guns do, but individuals are still allowed to make and register suppressors, just requires the payment of a $200 tax. So of all of the things that are incredibly restricted in the NFA, silencers or suppressors, whatever you call it, are definitely on the less restricted side, and many, many people have them. But this is just a basic function of physics. When something is a full-powered cartridge, it’s delivering hundreds and hundreds of joules to the target, and that’s coming out of the muzzle of a weapon. There is no way to silence the delivery of 1,000 joules. You just can’t.

21:30 Trevor Burrus: That also comes out of the side of the gun, too. It doesn’t just all come out of the barrel.

21:34 Matthew Larosiere: Yeah. When it’s a semiautomatic, yes, gas escapes out the side and otherwise. What people see… They see people shooting 22s. And even the 22, the typical 22 that you just buy at Walmart, is supersonic, which means it comes out of the barrel and there’s gonna be a supersonic crack, which is loud. People buy reduced power 22 ammo to make their suppressed weapons sound like the “pfft” type thing. And even that, it’s still about as loud as shutting a car door. Really, the primary efficacy of suppressors would be, and has been, hearing protection. They were experimented with in World War II, and it really just didn’t make enough of a difference, where they didn’t… And they’re cheap to make. So if it was that much of a difference, they would have issued these to everybody. It would have cost almost nothing. But they didn’t ‘cause it just isn’t that effective. It’s really not that much of a difference.

22:37 Trevor Burrus: So even for hearing protection, it’s just a few decibels. It’s not even a ton, right?

22:41 Trevor Burrus: Well, as you know, when you drop a few decibels, it’s actually a lot. But it does, generally, get to the point where… We’re talking about 110 decibels, which is on the border of what’s safe, versus 130, which is just stupid loud. So it’s a good thing to have and it’ll… What really people do and what my friends who use suppressors… I don’t really bother with one. I can’t be bothered to pay that stupid tax. Is they still use hearing protection, but when they are gonna shoot a lot of rounds, they put their suppressor on just…

23:13 Trevor Burrus: To extra.

23:13 Matthew Larosiere: So it’s comfortable, and they can shoot without getting fatigued. ‘Cause over time, if you’re shooting a lot of rounds, you get fatigued by the noise. It really does work on you. Anybody who’s been to a loud concert and sat in the front, I don’t think you feel like a spring chicken when you get out. It does fatigue you.

23:31 Trevor Burrus: Now, the controversy recently has been 3D-printed guns, and I wanted to make sure… Lay the groundwork on how these guns work and stuff, so we can get into this conversation about home-made guns. You know guns, you know how they work, you know what the laws are. And now, everyone’s freaking out about 3D-printed guns, at least in this last week here. Why, first of all… I guess the first question is, what happened to make suddenly everyone freak out about 3D-printed guns? ‘Cause I think a lot of people have known that they existed, but it came into the news all of a sudden.

24:03 Matthew Larosiere: They’ve existed since before Cody Wilson even became a figure. This has been something that people have been playing with ever since 3D printing came to be. Cody Wilson, of course, popularized it and spread it around. The reason this has come in right now, was because the State Department had forced Cody Wilson’s company, Defense Distributed, to pull these files that they were distributing for free off of their website. And this was obviously a First Amendment issue, because it’s a prior restraint on putting up these designs, which is all these are. You have to think of them that… Think of them, legally, they’re the same as if I drew a gun on paper and showed it to you. That’s…

24:46 Trevor Burrus: Or a blueprint that showed you how to put it together, yeah.

24:48 Matthew Larosiere: Right, exactly. Yeah. That’s still my expression, because the design of a gun could be exactly as artistic as it is technical. So there was a long drawn out legal battle, and then finally, the State Department said, “Why are we doing this? Let’s just… ” They knew their case wasn’t that strong.

25:06 Trevor Burrus: What was their claim?

25:06 Matthew Larosiere: Their claim was that this… The State Department’s claim?

25:10 Trevor Burrus: Yes.

25:10 Matthew Larosiere: They claimed that putting the weapons up… And this is fantastic. Putting the weapons up for free and unlimited download online constituted exporting defense articles under the Cold War era…

25:27 Trevor Burrus: International Treaty on Arms Regulation.

25:28 Aaron Ross Powell: This is the same as the arguments that were made about encryption, too, that…

25:31 Matthew Larosiere: Right. Yeah.

25:33 Trevor Burrus: Oh, they used the ITAR against encryption? You mean by telling people how to…

25:36 Aaron Ross Powell: I don’t know if they used that specific… But the argument against encryption…

25:39 Matthew Larosiere: The same thing.

25:39 Aaron Ross Powell: Was that if you put it out there, you were basically exporting. I don’t know if they categorize ammunitions, but some sort of weapon, because it could hide and…

25:49 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, these ITAR regulations, in many ways, they’re just to keep you from putting plans for, like an Apache helicopter online that the North Koreans could download or something like that. And that’s sort of what they claimed about these 3D-printed guns.

26:02 Matthew Larosiere: Well, ITAR is really about shipping bullet-proof vests to Central Africa. That’s what it’s really about. These developments have all been an outgrowth of just increasingly aggressive readings of a really poorly written statute. And even if you look at the statute, it specifically exempts all information that’s in the public domain. And so by definition, when you put your file up and say, “Anyone can download this for free,” it’s part of the public domain. So it was just a bad case. And so the government decided they were gonna settle, they were gonna just give them his legal fees and leave him alone. There were some very strange technicalities with how they did that, but that’s a different topic. And then what was reported was that 3D downloadable guns were becoming legal on the effective date of the settlement. Not that they had ever been illegal before, but that it’s now, the government is going to stop messing with people who put them online. And so this caused a media frenzy of people who… It’s been interesting ‘cause you’ve had mass confusion of the First and Second Amendment. No one is really sure which one we’re talking about, but that’s what’s drove it into the spotlight.

27:14 Trevor Burrus: Now, these plans, you put them into a 3D printer and… A really expensive 3D printer? Do you have to go drop five grand on something? Because you have… I guess, full disclosure, you have printed a gun, correct?

27:28 Matthew Larosiere: Yes.

27:29 Trevor Burrus: Which we can talk about exactly what that means, but you said… So what is the process of that?

27:34 Matthew Larosiere: Okay, so it’s not like a PDF file where you just hit print and it goes. These are actually… It’s a series of points. It is literally a digital blueprint. It is just a 3D model. You feed that to… So if you want me to explain the process of how this works?

27:51 Trevor Burrus: Please, please.

27:52 Matthew Larosiere: You take this the 3D model, which would be like the same thing that was used in a video game. In fact, I’ve actually, literally ripped files for a video game that had a stupid French gun that I really liked and printed a little scale model of it. A little scale one that’s sitting at my desk. So yeah, it’s just a 3D file. You then take it and feed it to what’s called a slicer. The slicer analyzes the file and determines what is the best way that this could be printed. How a 3D printer works, is it just heats up a type of plastic to its melting point, and then lays it down in rows. Imagine if you put a hot glue gun on a little motor that carried it in very specific locations, that’s how this works. So the slicer does that. You then feed this G-code file to the printer, and the G-code file is what tells the printer, “Okay, get this hot, move left, move right, move right,” for 30 hours, and then, eventually, you’ve got your piece.

28:50 Trevor Burrus: And how much is the printer?

28:51 Matthew Larosiere: Okay, right. The printers can range from… The one I use, which I always like to tell people, I heavily modified it from what it was originally, but the original price on it was $150, and I kind of did that intentionally. I bought the cheapest printer and saw what I could push out of it. But you can buy very competent printers for $250-$300.

29:12 Aaron Ross Powell: Most firearms have historically not been made out of plastic, for probably very good reasons. So why are these a thing? Is it pretty ill-advised to hold in your hand a 3D plastic gun that you’ve made and shoot it off?

29:30 Matthew Larosiere: With the equipment I have available to me, I would never do that. When the whole gun is 3D-printed, no. Here’s the thing, people always say, “Oh, the technology is gonna get better.” That’s why I’m not making an argument out of the fact that it’s hard and kinda technical to do, ‘cause I don’t think that’s relevant. Because, one, this is absolutely a First Amendment issue. And even if you made it illegal to 3D print a gun, you would not be able to illegalize the design for the gun.

29:58 Trevor Burrus: Or the communicating how to do it, ‘cause I can tell people how to saw off a shotgun…

30:03 Matthew Larosiere: Exactly.

30:04 Trevor Burrus: But I cannot saw… Legally saw off a shotgun.

30:06 Matthew Larosiere: Right. But so even as technology gets better with 3D printing, it’s gonna have to be made of plastic, at least beyond any advancement in technology that is not on the horizon. The metals, there are metal printers, but they require the use of a furnace, which is… The furnace is the real expensive part there, to actually sinter the metal, people don’t really understand that. The plastic, if you’re gonna make the barrel or the bolt, which is the parts that hold pressure, they depend on the spring capabilities of steel to be able to withstand the explosive forces, all of that pressure, and then contract back to their original shape and do it again. When that happens with plastic, the plastic fatigues. It deforms, and every single shot, it’s just gonna get a little bit, a little bit, a little bit weaker until ultimately you’re gonna have a failure, which…

31:01 Trevor Burrus: Could be harmful.

31:03 Matthew Larosiere: Yes, because we’re talking about a lethal amount… Again, it’s basic physics. If it’s got enough energy to throw several grams of lead down range very, very fast, it’s got enough energy to do some bad things, if it’s localized. So you just… It’s just… I don’t advise it. I’ve printed… I actually never did a completely 3D-printed gun until all of this hysteria came up and I was like, “Well, you know what, I’m just gonna do it.”

[laughter]

31:30 Trevor Burrus: But there are also gun parts.

31:31 Matthew Larosiere: Right. So there are tons of parts on a gun. Some of them don’t hold up to any pressure at all. Some of them hold up to minor stress, that actually, you can buy very… Guns that are very much plastic. And all of this… By the way, the laws about undetectable guns came around in the 1980s, when everyone was horrified that Glock was going to make a completely plastic Glock. And of course, Glock would say, “No, no, we’re not gonna do that. That’s kind of stupid.” So they imagined…

32:00 Trevor Burrus: It’s gonna be a really bad gun that will melt after a few uses, yes.

32:01 Matthew Larosiere: Yeah. So they imagined these ceramics, and all these things. None of this ever came to materialize because steel is really good at its job. This is something that steel is for.

32:10 Aaron Ross Powell: But if I learned anything from that movie, In the Line of Fire, you only need to get off one shot.

[laughter]

32:16 Trevor Burrus: To kill a president, or I probably… Did I just commit that federal offense about… No, I didn’t say I was going to. No, to bring it on a plane or bring it through a metal detector. That seems to be a real… That’s what everyone… I think it was Chuck Schumer or someone who said, “Coming soon to an airport near you, to a school near you.” Even if we have metal detectors, we can just walk right in with that. That’s true.

32:38 Matthew Larosiere: Well, so there’s a couple of things there, but I wanna finish on the…

32:41 Trevor Burrus: Okay, please, yes.

32:42 Matthew Larosiere: On this, because we were about to get to the receiver thing. A part that doesn’t take much stress is the receiver on many guns. And the way a receiver is defined is totally up to the whims of the ATF, so I couldn’t give you any principled reasons behind it. On some guns, it’s literally a tube; on some guns, it’s a side plate. It’s very strange how it’s defined. But with an AR-15, the receiver is the lower part that holds the trigger mechanism, which it kinda makes sense ‘cause that’s what would separate a machine gun from not a machine gun, what have you. Well, so you can print out one of these things because it doesn’t hold up to any of the stresses of firing, and you can do a pretty good job.

33:23 Matthew Larosiere: I’ve printed out one with my home-cobbled 3D printer that’s held up to hundreds of rounds. And people will say, “Well, but then, that’s the only part that’s a firearm, so now, anyone can just get it.” Well, yes, and nothing is changed because of 3D printing. This has always been in the cards. People have been able to… If you go on YouTube, there’s AR lowers that were carved from wood, that were milled from aluminum, that were milled from plastic. This has just always been something that has existed. I wouldn’t even argue that 3D printing makes it much easier. I would actually say that it’s easier to carve out a 80% aluminum lower receiver, and just have that be your gun, and there’s no background checks there. So it’s not that this isn’t a cause for concern, although I don’t think it is enough to justify a serious legislative response. It’s that the 3D printing doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t change anything.

34:22 Trevor Burrus: But why is… Isn’t it crazy that people are building guns in their house? It’s not something I plan on doing anytime soon.

34:31 Matthew Larosiere: That’s until I come over next week.

[laughter]

34:32 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. Maybe we’ll build one together, but… That seemed, I think if you went to most Western countries and said, “It’s just legal to make a gun in your house.”

34:45 Matthew Larosiere: Well, I’d like to…

34:45 Trevor Burrus: That would be crazy. That would seem crazy to Germans and Brits and everyone.

34:49 Matthew Larosiere: Well, now it would.

34:50 Trevor Burrus: But you can do this in a variety of ways. It’s been true for a very long time. Correct?

34:54 Matthew Larosiere: Well, yeah. Right now, it would seem crazy because of the way our culture has adapted around this, and I would actually like to go on a small tangent about the Brits and their gun design. It used to be that they had talented gunsmiths that would design and make their guns at home, and so for the longest time, they had some of the best weapons in the world because they had a very good shooting culture, a very advanced shooting culture that was often developing new designs and fabricating things at home. And these would develop into all kinds of different weapons. Then after that stopped being an issue…

35:30 Trevor Burrus: Because the culture died or it was made illegal.

35:32 Matthew Larosiere: Right. It was made illegal under the guise of wildlife protection. The Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield, where these designs happen, they only hire the best Cambridge engineers. And so now they got all these engineers that had no experience with gun design, and actually a lot of them had never held a gun, and so they went from producing some of the best small arms in the world to producing a firearm that literally didn’t work. And that is the standard… That was the standard equipment of their armed forces, a gun that did not function in the most basic way. And that’s something that we don’t have here in the US. Here, for years, we’ve valued people who design anything. Our culture values entrepreneurs and people who take initiative and design things. That’s just something that we have here. And in the gun context, certainly, I don’t think nowadays we’d have a David Williams, who was a convicted murderer who designed a semi-automatic weapon in prison and was then turned into a national icon when it was adopted by the military. I don’t think that we…

36:35 Trevor Burrus: Wait, he was like… He was in the prison metal shop or something and decided to build a gun?

36:38 Matthew Larosiere: Yeah. Well, he was in prison. He would show them, he would show the guards his designs, they said, “Oh, you’re really good. We’re gonna let you use the lathe.” And then he designed four different semi-automatic rifles in jail, had his sentence commuted because of it, went and worked for… Worked in the government and designed the M1 carbine, one of the most prolific weapons of the US Armed Forces, and was turned… There was a movie made about him. He became a national icon. I’m saying our culture has shifted from then, but we still, I think, we still value designers in general here enough, that it should never be said that, “Oh, well… ” If you have a kid that says, “I’d like to design a new gun,” you shouldn’t tell them, “Don’t do that, you’ll go to jail.” That’s what we’re dealing with here.

37:27 Aaron Ross Powell: Are there any worries, then, about 3D-printed guns? What you’ve told us so far is… So there’s a First Amendment issue, you can’t… The government is constitutionally barred from stopping the dissemination of these plans. And then also, of course, there’s the, if we know anything about the Internet, even if they… It would be impossible to stop it even if you wanted to, and even if you made it illegal, people would still do it and you can pass these around encrypted. It’s just…

37:54 Trevor Burrus: Shut down the tube and someone’s gotta clean up these CAD files and then we’ll open them back up. Yeah.

[laughter]

38:00 Aaron Ross Powell: But even bracketing that, there’s not a lot of use for these things. They are largely, it sounds like they are novelty items at the moment. To make them anything more than novelty items would involve a huge expense. So like being able to print with metal and whatnot. So is this just an issue that we should just, no matter which side we’re on, on the gun control debate, we should just entirely drop? Or are there any legitimate concerns here or on the horizon, within this general area?

38:31 Matthew Larosiere: Well, I’d resist that it’s only useful for a novelty. I think it’s most useful for prototyping and development of new designs, and that’s what this suppression has really hampered down on the most. It’s people who have new ideas that want to share them, ‘cause it’s not illegal to have the files. It actually is not illegal for me to email them to you even right now as long as you’re a US citizen, of course. But as for this being a legitimate concern, like a safety concern, I’d say not in the US. These weapons that are completely 3D printed, that creates a concern in other countries where you don’t have… So in the US it’s pretty unique in that you can buy a barrel, a bolt, all the other gun parts, right over the counter. And that’s something that it would be very hard to change, I think. Most of these parts are unregulated, and it would be almost impossible to put a damper on the existing supply of barrels, bolts, all these important parts that need to be made from metal.

39:31 Matthew Larosiere: In other countries, though, where every part of a gun is restricted, these single shot fully 3D-printed guns are more of a legitimate concern. However, they’re not more of a concern than any other home-made gun. If you go on Amazon and there is a book about how to make a 9mm submachine gun from hardware store parts, that is actually quite effective. I haven’t used one, I’ve seen videos of this type of gun. And they actually find these in Australia; there was a guy who worked out of a storage unit and produced a bunch of them from…

40:05 Trevor Burrus: Tubing and…

40:06 Matthew Larosiere: Tubing, yeah, and…

40:09 Trevor Burrus: I was shocked by the video of, which I put on a blog post a couple week… Of just a shotgun, which are literally just two store-bought pieces of tube. It perfectly fits a 12 gauge thing. Then you have another tube and you ram them together, and you have a shotgun for like $7. And that’s always been legal. Probably stupid.

40:28 Matthew Larosiere: Yeah, that’s called a zip gun. And zip guns have existed as long as ammunition exists because guns, at their core, are very simple. So I’d say that is the biggest argument against these things.

40:42 Trevor Burrus: In other countries.

40:43 Matthew Larosiere: In other countries I’d say that’s the biggest cause of concern, but then I would immediately say, “But it makes no difference, because pipe.”

40:51 Trevor Burrus: It’s a concern, if you care about Japan’s restricted gun laws, which I think are a bad idea, anyway, although crime is gonna be low in Japan no matter what you do. But if you’re trying to keep that out, then yeah, people can 3D print guns, but also there might be some sort of underground hobbyist culture for building guns in Japan anyway.

41:11 Matthew Larosiere: Probably.

41:12 Trevor Burrus: But here’s the better question. What about criminals, actual criminals who are prohibited from purchasing a gun under background checks, who can’t go to a gun store? ‘Cause I’ve raised the point that you can pay $150 and get a pretty cheap 9mm pistol from a company called High Point that you showed me, but you have to go to a federal fire arms license generally, and you can’t have it if you’re a felon, legally. So what if you’re out there looking for a gun to commit some crime or to protect yourself, and then you say, “Hey, let’s get a 3D printer and use that.” That seems like a real concern.

41:50 Matthew Larosiere: Right. So it’s also illegal in most states to just go out and buy weed, but I don’t think it would take you too terribly long to find a source. So guns are kind of the same way. It’s pretty cheap to be able to get a gun “off the street,” and that’s what most criminals are gonna do. They’ll either get a straw purchaser, which is have somebody else who is legally allowed, go and buy it, and just use it that way. File off the serial numbers, what have you. We just don’t live in a society where the cost structure where it would make sense from the criminal’s perspective to invest in and learn this new technology, and then also sit and wait. Most common criminals, I don’t think would have the patience to wait 40 hours for a single shot pistol to come off their printer and then file it and assemble it correctly.

42:48 Aaron Ross Powell: As Homer Simpson said, “I’m angry now.”

42:51 Trevor Burrus: Oh, yeah, the gun episode. But on the long run, though, everyone’s in the 3D gun printing community which you are somewhat a part of, the ultimate goal is to make these better, correct? That’s what they’re trying to do. The first one, proof of concept, often called the Liberator, one shot.

43:12 Matthew Larosiere: Yeah.

43:13 Trevor Burrus: A rifle, effective range of about 20 feet. It was a real…

43:16 Matthew Larosiere: And weak.

43:17 Trevor Burrus: It was a real not very good gun but it showed that you could do it without any piece of metal in it. Now you have things like the Songbird, which looks more like a regular pistol, and if you let people just continue to work on these plans, you’re just gonna have people churning out more and more effective guns, and eventually you might just get one that… You said it’s not gonna be possible, but maybe 10 shots before it melts in your hand, but that’s enough to do a shooting rampage if you’re a felon who can’t get a gun any other way.

43:44 Matthew Larosiere: Right, well, no, I wouldn’t say it’s not possible, and there’s actually plans for… Which aren’t easy. It’s very easy to get these plans for a revolver that just uses a insert. Just uses metal inserts in the chambers, and they’ve been able to get quite a few shots out of that. If you’re gonna have a repeatable firearm, it’s gonna have to have a metal barrel and chamber, which gets over these airport security concerns. And also the big thing about a fully plastic one, is that it has to be pretty huge to hold any cartridge that is really lethal. It’s hard to sneak through a metal detector with a five-inch bulge regardless.

44:28 Trevor Burrus: So still not really gonna happen.

44:31 Aaron Ross Powell: So you’re saying, and we’re still a ways away from being able to 3D print bullets, then?

44:36 Matthew Larosiere: Actually, so the bullet is a technical term, it’s just the projectile. We do 3D print bullets but there, it’s a funny thing that we do, we use them for target practice, because they are stupidly light. They’re far too light to actually use with gunpowder. So you basically just, you print out a bullet and just put a primer in, and you can use that as practice ammo at the range, if you’re exceedingly cheap, like I am.

45:01 Trevor Burrus: I’m blown away right now. So it’s like a little plastic bullet and you just have a percussion cap?

45:06 Matthew Larosiere: Yeah, just the primer.

45:08 Trevor Burrus: And so it goes very slow?

45:09 Matthew Larosiere: It comes out like 800 feet a second.

45:11 Trevor Burrus: Oh, really?

45:12 Matthew Larosiere: It’s just so light. It’s just so light whereas a…

45:15 Aaron Ross Powell: But could you kill someone with one?

45:16 Matthew Larosiere: No, I think it would hurt very badly but… So there’s other plastic ammo. Plastic ammo has existed for a while, the Germans use it as training munitions. It’s still very weak, but the one they have that… It still has to be fired out of a steel gun, but they have one that uses a full charge of gunpowder under this extremely light projectile. The projectile weighs like 10 grains. For comparison, the typical projectile in a rifle in the 0.308 is 150 grains. So this is stupidly light, but it comes out at 4000 feet a second. So the energy as a function of those two factors, it’s lethal. The ones that you 3D print, it would just be if you actually put gunpowder behind it, they would melt in your gun and ruin it. So you just put the primer in, and it comes out at a somewhat competent velocity, enough to poke a hole in paper, but it would be a bit foolish to try to use that in a defensive situation, I’d say.

46:13 Trevor Burrus: So if we understand that there are a lot of gun hobbyists out there who enjoy tinkering on them, just like we enjoying tinkering on cars. And there’s AR-15s that are not terribly, particularly dangerous or high-capacity magazines, which again are not particularly dangerous. Silencers don’t really make guns like dart guns. 3D-printed guns aren’t that dangerous and they’re not dangerous, into the future. Is there anything in the world of guns that you think we should be concerned about? Should people… You seem pretty blasé, you say, “Okay, well, let’s just make grenades legal or rocket launchers or anything like that.” Are those the kind of things… Or just say, “Homemade rocket launchers, why not?” Or should we draw a line somewhere?

47:00 Matthew Larosiere: So there’s not… The main takeaway from discussing all these different types of weapons is that, it’s really only marginal. There aren’t particular firearms that are super deadly. They’re all deadly. So there’s not really much principle to be drawn there. What I would say is that any type of restrictions on firearms or weapons generally, that are legitimate, would be ones that were based in a theory of public nuisance. To where which would mean that this pretty much cannot be used competently to defend yourself as in like, I would say, a tactical nuclear bomb probably has no legitimate defensive use. Whereas…

47:47 Trevor Burrus: Probably grenades too, ‘cause they’re easily passed around for…

47:54 Matthew Larosiere: Hand grenades are quite difficult to use carefully. But I am generally of the opinion that there is no shoulder-fired weapon that is very legitimately regulated or made criminal. Because like I said, all of the differences, even when we’re talking about machine guns, regardless of caliber, it’s all limited by recoil, and the efficacy is really quite limited when it comes to individuals. So there’s just not really much point in drawing that line. And if you’re going to draw it, it has to take into account that when you criminalize these things, you’re going to be going through neighborhoods and enforcing these laws, you’re gonna be putting people in jail. That’s something that people don’t ever think about. When you make a high capacity magazine ban, and there’s millions and millions of these out there, what about all of the families that are gonna lose breadwinners as a result of that? That needs to be seriously taken into account. And so I would say that restrictions on tactical nukes can probably be set too.

48:57 Aaron Ross Powell: Thanks for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoyed today’s show, please rate and review us on iTunes. And if you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.