Can 3D-Printed Guns be Detected by TSA?

3D printed revolver confiscated by TSA

Gun control proponents, including some in the press, experienced a couple of embarrassing setbacks last week, thanks to a report from the Transportation Safety Administration, which was covered by CBS News, and an editorial in the Walla Walla Union Bulletin relating to an anti-gun-rights initiative in Washington state.

3D printed revolver confiscated by TSA
This 3D revolver and five rounds of .22 Magnum ammunition were detected by the TSA at an airport in 2016. But critics say these guns are “invisible” to metal detectors. (Image courtesy TSA)

In the midst of last week’s hysteria over 3D plastic guns, CBS News reported that, over the past two years, the Transportation Safety Administration had intercepted “thousands of guns” at security checkpoints, including “a handful (that) were created with a 3D printer.” The story was accompanied by an image showing a tiny five-shot revolver and the five .22 Magnum cartridges that were detected. The gun looks like a knock-off of a North American Arms mini-revolver.

CBS quoted TSA Assistant Administrator Michael Bilello, who said in a statement, “TSA Officers are trained and on the lookout for 3D guns. We have proven detection capabilities and screening protocols in place. In the world of airport and aviation security, ‘a gun is a gun.’”

That rather debunks an argument in a Seattle Times editorial, along with similar assertions in other media, that 3D guns—also called “ghost guns”—are “invisible to metal detectors.” If that were true, these plastic guns rounded up by TSA would have gotten through the security checkpoints, would they not?

The revolver shown was detected in August 2016, virtually two years before the brouhaha erupted last week over the planned release of, and quick court action against, 3D printing technology and blueprints by a Texas-based firm, Defense Distributed, founded by Cody Wilson. A federal judge has schedule another hearing on the matter later this week in Seattle.

CBS further reported that “in December 2016 and January 2018, 3D-printed parts of so-called assault-style weapons known as “lower receivers” were found in carry-on bags at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport.” That would seem to rebut comments made by perennial anti-gun Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who claimed that “undetectable” AR15 rifles are “coming to a theater near you; coming to a school near you” in a press event aired by ABC News.

While all of this was going on, a newspaper in far south-central Washington State said in an editorial that a controversial gun control initiative aimed at stripping young adults of their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms should be kept off the November ballot.

The newspaper editorial noted that Secretary of State Kim Wyman “had concerns about whether the format of the petitions was constitutional.” State law requires that petitions include a “readable, full, true and correct” version of the initiative printed on the reverse side, the newspaper said. That was not the case, however, resulting in two separate legal challenges, one filed by gun rights advocate Alan Gottlieb, a Washington state resident and voter, and the other by the National Rifle Association.

The Union Bulletin editorial board observed, “In the end, it seems, at least to us, the law was not strictly followed in the way signatures were gathered. It’s likely the state Supreme Court will be the final arbiter… The law is in place for a reason. It ensures the process leading up to approval of an initiative (making law) is followed so all parties are treated equally and fairly. It is, or at least should be, about doing things correctly.

“Again, we don’t believe the law was followed in the collecting of signatures for I-1639,” the newspaper said. “The initiative should be disqualified.”

Not that it matters, perhaps, but the gun prohibition lobbying group behind the initiative is complaining via email fund raisers, that the NRA has contributed $100,000 to defeating the measure. It hasn’t occurred to the Alliance for Gun Responsibility to also report that it has raised and spent more than $3 million so far on its gun control campaign. Indeed, according to data from the state Public Disclosure Commission, the Initiative 1639 campaign has raised more than $4 million in cash and “in-kind” contributions.

Evidently, anti-gunners think they’re at an unfair disadvantage when they can only outspend the NRA by a 40-to-1 margin. According to gun rights activists now preparing for a fight this fall, that’s called “hypocrisy.”

What do you think of 3D printed guns? How do you think the courts will rule? Are you planning to download plans from Defense Distributed when they become available? Share your answers in the comment section.

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Comments (24)

  1. I work at a large State run maximum security prison. Every day when we enter the unit we pass through a metal detector, and anything we bring with us (lunch, cold weather gear, boots/shoes, etc) is passed through an Xray scanner. I have worked the entrance points of the unit enough times to be completely familiar with the equipment. I can tell you that a 3D printed plastic gun (even without any metallic components) will show up on the Xray scanner. Putting it inside of something metallic to hide it will not help (unless it is lead) to hide it. With our Xray scanners I can see right through aluminum bodied flashlights. I can even see into the batteries through the flashlight tube. Electronic key fobs show up as outlines around the circuit boards with the key rings and keys attached to the fob. The scanners can even make out ice in a stainless steel Yeti style cup. You see the faint outline of each ice cube. A hand full of coins dumped into the tub and scanned can be identified by denomination of each coin by the images stamped into the coin. Our state issued driver’s licenses can even be identified for what they are, but the scatter does not allow them to be read or the owner’s picture identifiable.

  2. I laughed out loud when I saw that scene where John Malkovich fired his little plastic gun for practice and killed 2 fishermen outright then reloaded with centerfire ammo. My wife had to shush me.
    Anyone who believes in plastic guns is blithely naive and ignorant. Might as well use a spear or dagger.

  3. I don’t know of any plastic that will contain the explosive force of a firearm’s discharge, so this argument sounds like it was made for TV. There are at least three easy fixes for much of the gun crime that is happening. One: Make the legal owner of a firearm that is used in a shooting partly responsible as its whereabouts should have been secured. Why are kids taking dad’s gun to school? Shouldn’t it be locked up if it’s not on him? No fancy safe is needed, trigger locks are cheap. Second: How about Federal concealed carry reciprocity for those willing to undergo a more thorough background check and some competency training? I have a permit but taking my weapon out of state is sketchy because each state’s laws are different. Somewhat related, I applied for a global entry card via Homeland Security that permits me to bypass the regular lines in the airport and to get back into the country more easily when I travel abroad; in a matter of about 30 days they did a comprehensive background check, fingerprints, and a personal interview. Offer that type of check and include a State Police-run weapons-use evaluation and then allow any qualifying law-abiding citizen to carry anywhere at any time. Everyone who can carry, should carry. It would effectively strengthen the security of our country by many times over because budding criminals wouldn’t know who’s armed or when or where. I’m a veteran and there are lots of other men and women who would die for this country now, just like I pledged to do years ago. Nothing has changed other than our leaders keep getting weaker. Third: Prisoners with violent crime convictions get solitary confinement, not incarceration with the general population. It would be a much greater deterrent and recidivism would drop dramatically. Why are they getting better treatment and living conditions than most of them have on the streets? Plus they are subject to radicalization and learning new ways to commit crimes. Solitary confinement because if they can’t adapt to living with people on the outside, there’s no need to give them that privilege on the inside. There are no civil liberties to grant to the uncivil. Prison should suck.

  4. ÔÇ£Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who claimed that ÔÇ£undetectableÔÇØ AR15 rifles are ÔÇ£coming to a theater near you; coming to a school near youÔÇØ in a press event aired by ABC News.ÔÇØ
    What difference does it make, even if it were possible, there is no screening in theaters and the vast majority of schools.
    When will people learn that stupid comments and sweeping generalities ruin ones credibility?

  5. Why worry about plastics getting detected in metal detectors, when it is not that difficult to get metal passed metal detectors?

    A few times recently, I forgot to put my Swiss Army Knife in checked luggage at the airport or in my car when visiting the local hospital with a metal detector. Neither found it.

  6. If we hold our adversaries to proper terminology, we should be correct as well.
    Suspect “metal detectors” did not detect plastic guns, but if they are dense enough not to explode, x-ray might see them and hopefully TSA would recognize them in the search.

  7. All of this ninny state hair on fire caterwauling about “ghost” or undetectable firearms defies logic and reason. Every firearm made since the matchlocks has had metal springs in it, and printed guns do as well. The required force of a hammer or striker hit on a primer to cause ignition of a round of ammunition makes this a reality check on the argument these fools have constructed about gun invisibility. All firing mechanisms need to have hardened metallic parts in them to function even if for one use only, and without a steel barrel liner no 3-D printed gun will work without subjecting the shooter to the possibility of a case rupture or catastrophic failure (read plastic shrapnel penetrating the hand, upper extremities, face and eyes) when a modern round of ammunition is expended. Without a steel chamber, the cartridge case will expand shortly after ignition and before the projectile begins to exit the case mouth on it’s trip downrange, and in the process if the chamber walls are not strong enough to withstand the forces of a cartridge discharge it will be like holding a cartridge in your fingers while striking the primer with a hammer that is pointed enough to get a good strike on the primer. DO NOT TRY THAT AT HOME boys and girls. The same is true of any non reinforced polymer gun barrel.

    Regarding the myth of creating an invisible repeating firearm – you can forget that too. The same expansion of the cartridge case that could cause the chamber to explode like a small grenade in the hands of the shooter would at the very least jam the case in the chamber – and without a steel extractor you are not going to remove that case anyway.

    All firearms that are capable of discharging any available round of ammunition manufactured today has to have hardened metallic parts in order to function, especially the parts that contain the pressure of the burning propellant until the projectile leaves the bore of the barrel.

    There goes the “ghost gun” myth right out the window. These facts have been true all or in part since the flintlock era where a hammer under spring tension is retained by a trigger mechanism until the shooter squeezes the trigger to release the force of the spring tension and causes the hammer to strike – whether that hammer is the cock with a flint wrapped in leather in it’s jaws striking a frizzen and showering sparks upon an open priming charge in the pan, or if it is a hammer striking a firing pin or a striker that hits the primer to initiate the firing of the charge and subsequent expansion of hot gases that propels the projectile toward the target with great speed and kinetic force; hardened metallic parts and tempered metallic springs along with other metal parts make creating a functional firearm will in any case render the “undetectable” entirely detectable – and the industry introduction of marker dyes into the raw material that the 3-D printer process requires to make anything makes it even less plausible that such a weapon can escape detection.

    People also need to keep in mind that the process of 3-D printing requires the raw material that is processed in the printing cycle is made flowable by heat – at much lower temperatures than burning ammunition propellant reaches. So while you are firing the plastic gun the heat from the ammunition being expended melts and weakens the structure and then the pressure from that ignition would render the gun totally useless, and might injure the shooter or bystanders in the bargain.

    Case closed on the invisible ghost gun – until we have concealable directed energy weapons – and as far as I know that is still the realm of science fiction and fantasy. (Fantasy much like the ghost gun itself).

    All this hyperbolic screaming about this, and to date there has not been even a single reported incident of a crime committed using a 3-D printed gun…

    However, John Dillinger escaped the Crown Point jail in Indiana in the 1930’s with a carved wooden pseudo gun… look it up, it’s on the internet!

  8. No gun is useful without bullets. Bullets show up in a metal detector. Didn’t we go through this before with the Glock hysteria in the ’80s?

  9. In 1993 there was a movie called “In the Line of Fire” starring Clint Eastwood as a Secret Service agent charged with protecting the President. His nemesis in the move was John Malkovich, who attempted to kill the President, with a plastic gun that he had made.

    1993! There are far more deadly things in this world than 3D printed guns. This is just the usual rhetoric from a mentally imbalanced group of people who, by their own statements and examples, don’t really know squat about firearms in general…oh, except that they are scary and give them PTSD.

  10. Zip guns have been around for a long time. Remember the Bronson series “Death wish”?The easily compounded 2 part WMD from Walmart that was first used in WW1. Explosive detonator can be had from most newer cars. So your worried about a very limited use and fairly technical and expensive to make item.

  11. I can’t believe anyone could print a functional revolver that small. The mechanism to rotate the cylinder, if made of plastic, would be bulky if not impossible to operate properly. And the cylinder shown with those thin walls would certainly not handle .22 magnum pressures. If that really was a printed revolver, it must be a dummy never intended to fire. Very possibly TSA had one made just to scare people.

  12. I had a plastic gun when I was a child… it was made by Mattel. I don’t know enough yet about these printer versions to have an opinion. As long as we have the technology to keep them from getting into places where they shouldn’t be getting into, life goes on. They could be made from Erector Sets or Legos for all I care because I’m sticking with what time has proven to be reliable…

  13. The “LAW” was changed after “9/11” with the introduction into the Federal Government by a New Agency of Law. The Department of Homeland Security in 25 November 2002. “We The People” wanted and told our Elected Representatives in Congress to FIX the Terrorism Problem. Which THEY (i.e. the US Congress) DID. The FACT that nobody Thought Through the Long-Term Ramifications of Creating the Department of Homeland Security and the Powers needed to effectively run the DHS was who’s fault?/! The US Government, or “We The People”…

  14. Simply follow constitutional law. The Constitution also includes the ability to change the law. Lets all stop the emotional rhetoric and use our heads. By that I mean that recent gun laws are going too far to stop or hamper gun ownership, our Constitutional right. Now lets get back to solving real problems like: Opioid epidemic/deaths, motor vehicle deaths, infectious disease, diabetes, smoking, all killing more Americans by far, and there are many higher priorities to spend limited financial resources on. Get real.

  15. “NR” (i.e. Nile Red) is a Identification Dye used in Plastics, that “Fluorescent’s” when a Special Light is applied to the Plastic. Been out since at least 2013. Virtually ALL Plastics and Plastic Products have “NR” in there composition…

  16. When they start printing casings, projectiles, and propellant, then it may become an issue to me. I’m not sure, but there may be enough metallic component to gunpowder to make the whole issue moot.
    Personally, I wouldn’t hit a dog in the ass with any firearm made on a printer. I dont fly anymore, so why bother. All my traditionally made weapons have been working just fine for me for decades. And if some poor sap attempts to do me, or mine harm with one, or jack my car, or hell, anything. They’ll be on the receiving end of a non-3d printed weapon. I believe, I would come out on top.

    As always
    Carry on

  17. It does prove that no laws will ever stop firearms from being had by anyone who wants one. Years ago plastic gun hype was even in the movies. James Bonds , MAN with the golden gun ?? If I remember correctly. Had one to smuggle in to commit murder.
    What’s needed is not control of guns , it’s criminal control that’s needed. Evil will always find away to kill , put god back in schools , make it so kids have a parent at home to teach right from wrong. Church with Bible teaching helps also. Plastic guns are there and there to stay. Three hunks of pipe will make s gun as well ban plumbing also. Where does it end.

  18. I think 3d printed guns are great if used as a mockup to proof a design, firing one on the other hand, is in my opinion about as smart as getting into a knife fight with a plastic knife. who would use a 3d printer, that costs well over $2000 to make a gun that will fire once or twice before a catastrophic failure when for $2000 you can buy Cody Wilson’s Ghostgunner open source CNC mill and make real guns out of real metal. if you are looking to get them past security, clearly its not going to work so why not have something useful. design your gun, make a mockup with a 3d printer, make your improvements then program it into the open source Ghostgunner files, and upload them to the internet for people to download. the idea of being frightened by a gun that is just as likely to blow up in your face as to actually work is ridicules. right not without a 3d printer, I can drill out a block of plastic and make a gun, so if some is bound and determined to make a gun from plastic, how can you stop them? what we need is a little less panic, and a little more common sense!

  19. Printer and stuff to feed it too expensive, end product not durable enough, think I’ll pass, at least for the time being

    1. You can’t make barrels on a CNC mill. You also can’t make female threads on a CNC mill.

    2. Dear Spencer,
      You must not be a machinist. A good machinist can make any part of a gun on a CNC mill, internal and external threads too. As a journeyman machinist for 43 years, I have done it and do it regularly.

    3. Sure you can, we do it all the time. It’s called thread milling.
      I’d rather mill a large thread on an CNC machine than try and push a 2″ tap through stainless steel by hand.

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