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Kory Jenkins, the machine shop and prototype lab manager at NRRI in Duluth, talks about a selective laser sintering machine that creates three-dimensional prototypes. Clint Austin / Forum News Service

3D printing roils gun debate; Minnesota officials concerned, but some decry issue as political ‘hype’

DULUTH — As a legal battle rages in federal court, local officials say they have yet to see 3D-printed firearms hit the streets in the Northland.

But some authorities are bracing for the potential arrival of 3D-printed guns. While those devices are largely untested — and questions persist about their practicability — rapidly evolving technology has brought both legal and public safety concerns to the forefront.

"Our freedom and our liberty depend on security," said St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin. "An untraceable, undetectable ghost gun that eliminates accountability, and any blueprints or designs to create such a weapon, do not benefit a lawful society. It is not an allowable innovation."

Minnesota is one of 20 states, along with the District of Columbia, suing over the federal government's decision to allow the online publication of 3D-printed gun blueprints — a case that has raised both First and Second Amendment issues.

A federal judge in Seattle recently issued a temporary restraining order requiring a Texas company, Defense Distributed, to remove from its website blueprints for a pistol and an AR-15 frame. The company has complied ahead of an Aug. 21 preliminary injunction hearing, but its code remains online on a multitude of other websites.

The legal battle will continue as experts report major gains in 3D-printing technology and the country remains politically divided over gun rights.

Legal loophole?

Duluth police Lt. Jeff Kazel, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force, said he is not aware of any 3D-printed guns encountered by area law enforcement agencies at this point. But he said the emerging technology does raise concerns for police.

"Are these weapons detectable by metal detectors?" he posed. "If not, it would be difficult for event security and our airports."

Minnesota law requires a permit to purchase or transfer ownership of any handgun or long firearm with a pistol grip. That involves a background check by the purchaser's local police department or sheriff's office.

But self-manufactured firearms would seem to circumvent gun laws in Minnesota and numerous other states, officials warned.

While not explicitly illegal to produce, so long as they contain some metal, 3D-printed firearms carry no serial number or paper trail — an issue authorities have said could make it much easier for felons and other prohibited people to obtain and exchange firearms.

"Our laws exist to protect people," Rubin said, "and our government can and should modify those laws to prevent against such an unacceptable risk."

Others, including the National Rifle Association, have criticized the political response to the issue in recent weeks.

"Many anti-gun politicians and members of the media have wrongly claimed that 3D-printing technology will allow for the production and widespread proliferation of undetectable plastic firearms," NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox said in a statement. "Regardless of what a person may be able to publish on the Internet, undetectable plastic guns have been illegal for 30 years."

Bob Woods of Duluth is president of the Northwestern Gun Club in Fredenberg Township. The shooting range advertises itself as the state's oldest gun club and the nation's longest-running NRA affiliate.

Woods said the reality is that professionally manufactured firearms — whether purchased legally or illegally — are still less expensive and far more reliable than their 3D-printed counterparts, which could fail after a single use.

"We're not going to see a huge shift in sales," he said. "People aren't going to spend more money to print something up that might only work once. But people will always be working on the technology. Maybe someday down the road they will have something. But in today's society, it's all a lot of hype."

Technology progressing

The term "3D printing" has entered the common lexicon in recent years but most people don't know much about the technology, said Kory Jenkins, machine shop and prototype lab manager at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute.

The term is really more of a catch-all for a variety of manufacturing techniques, he said, which involve creating a computer model that allows the user to build a customized object from scratch.

"Generally, the way these processes work is you have a computer part file, and you manufacture this part by building it up in layers, adding more material on top of previous layers," Jenkins said. "3D printing is probably the term most commonly known in conversation, but the industry has also moved toward the term 'additive manufacturing,' which more broadly encompases a variety of techniques that have been or will be developed."

NRRI has industrial-level machines, some costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, that are capable of using plastic, powder or resin materials to produce objects up to about a cubic foot in a matter of hours or days. University officials note the machines are kept in secure facilities under strict control of lab managers to prevent misuse.

3D printers can also be purchased by average consumers with a price tag ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. They can also be found at shared membership workshops, such as the Duluth MakerSpace in Lincoln Park.

That group's founder, Joe Durbin, said it isn't a concern at this point because the hobby-level machines deal with cheaper materials and cannot withstand the pressures needed to manufacture firearms.

"You really need a high-end 3D printer for that sort of stuff," he said. "We've just got the run-of-the-mill plastic thing. It's a valid concern; we just don't have that equipment."

But the technology has evolved significantly since emerging about 10 years ago. NRII executive director Rolf Weberg said he's seen entire houses constructed through 3D-printing methods.

Going forward, he said, the technology will continue to become cheaper and more accessible. Industries will be looking at cost efficiency, durability and longevity of 3D-printed materials, he said.

The technique is already shaking up the production of construction materials, medical implants, automotive parts, musical instruments — and, perhaps, firearms.

"It's a disruptive technology," Weberg said. "You can find a billion different ways to use it."