UA experts skeptical of 3D-printed gun concerns

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - It's the high-pitched sound of innovation, inside the University of Arizona Science Engineering Library. The melted material is being molded step by step, millimeters at a time.

Travis Teetor oversees the operation.

"There's a great energy and a lot of great imagination about this creative process and trying to bring improvements to the world," said Teetor, Manager of Technology at UA Libraries.

The library houses a variety of 3D printers, of various shapes, sizes, and capabilities.

Anyone can come into the library with an idea and create, although, the possibilities are not without limits.

"It's designed more for prototyping than mass production," Teetor said.

But a warning shot of futuristic fears was fired in a YouTube video from 2013 by Defense Distributed, showing a plastic pistol known as The Liberator, made on a 3D printer at a home in Austin, Texas, firing a single round.

Cody Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed, first published downloadable designs for that 3D-printed firearm in 2013. It was downloaded about 100,000 times until the State Department ordered him to cease, contending it violated federal export laws since some of the blueprints were downloaded by people outside the United States, an Associated Press report said. In a reversal that stunned gun-control advocates, the State Department in late June settled its case against Wilson and agreed to allow him to resume posting the blueprints at the end of July. Wilson took to Twitter, declaring victory and proclaiming he would start back up on August 1.

"Do-it-yourself firearms like The Liberator have been nicknamed 'Ghost Guns' because they don't have serial numbers and are untraceable," according to a CNN report.

3D printing technology dates back to the 1980s when the first items were produced.

"Even when we started looking into 3D printing, that was always a concern," Teetor said, talking about using the technology to create a weapon.

But it's less concerning for Teetor's students, like Tory Middlebrooks, who was in the lab working with the 3D printers.

"This (3D printing) technology isn't really geared for that. The kind of people who are interested in those kinds of toys or machines aren't going to do it by spending $800 or $900 on a 3D printer, or $13,000 on a laser cutter," said Middlebrooks, who is also a student-worker in the lab. "If somebody is interested in pursuing blacksmithing, to make a knife for example, it's way better that you produce it the same way that we've been producing them for thousands of years than buying a laser cutter and laser-cutting a piece of sharpened acrylic. That's not what these machines are good at doing."

In the Associated Press report, law enforcement officials expressed concern about allowing the designs for such firearms to be publicly available expressly because they're easy to conceal and untraceable since there's no requirement for the firearms to have serial numbers.

"When you think about all the rhetoric we here in our nation about tightening our borders and homeland security, and now we're going to put out there for anyone who wants a recipe for how to overcome ... TSA airport screenings or any other metal detector," said Rick Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, to the Associated Press. "It's absolutely insane."

But the future has arrived. Wilson's website proclaims that, "the age of the downloadable gun formally begins."

It's leaving Teetor not wanting to not fan the flames of fear.

"The more that we can put these tools, and share with people how they can do this and not make (3D printing) a big scary thing - because it's not scary - it is something that is intended to create and to bring people together," he said, talking about the treasured technology and all the good it can do.

Even though the 3D printers at the University of Arizona are open to the public, Teetor told Tucson News Now that any sort of weapon or parts would never be made on campus.

"The UA campus is a weapon-free zone, and our policies prohibit us from producing any form of weapons," Teetor said. "In order to prepare jobs for printing, our process involves reviewing every job that is submitted. We use this as an opportunity to verify that the object is safe."

Copyright 2018 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.