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A federal judge last month blocked a website from sharing blueprints of 3D guns. The ruling came after tens of thousands of people already had downloaded the instructions for these weapons. Experts say this should not cause widespread public safety concerns. But as Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY reports, people in the 3D printing industry are taking action.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: In south Philadelphia, there's a high-tech makerspace called NextFab. Inside, they have laser cutters, robots and a roomful of 3D printers. Walt Barger manages the printing operations and is standing between two printers the size of refrigerators.
WALT BARGER: It's an older printer, but it's still a $40,000 machine, and the one next to it, the ProJet, is a $100,000 machine.
ALLYN: Lately, he's been extra vigilant about the kinds of things people are hoping to create here.
BARGER: Our staff is always monitoring. If we see anything that, you know, looks like a gun, we're going to stop the person.
ALLYN: Barger hasn't had to do that yet. But he says the company makes its policy clear to new users. Don't even try.
BARGER: If you're going to 3D print any parts of a gun - since people are coming in here and using our equipment to print, we then have a liability.
ALLYN: Before Barger went any further, though, he told me something you often hear from people who work in the 3D printing world on the subject of printable guns. The threat is being overblown. Printing out a fully functional 3D gun isn't a cakewalk. You might have to spend $10,000 on a printer. You need technical chops and hours and hours of trial and error. For those hoping for the day when making a homemade gun takes hitting the play button on a desktop printer, Max Lobovsky has some news for you. He's the CEO of Formlabs, a billion-dollar 3D printing company out of Massachusetts.
MAX LOBOVSKY: It's far enough away from now that we'd have a low-cost device that could produce a fully functional firearm. I don't think anyone is particularly close. I mean, I think at least 10 to 15 years.
ALLYN: Still, some 3D-printing companies are already on the defensive. Major 3D printing company Sculpteo has banned firearm printing, saying it doesn't want to be associated with weapon manufacturing. And Materialise, a publicly traded 3D printing manufacturer and software developer, has launched a feature to block the production of guns. Chelsea Parsons is a gun policy expert at the Center for American Progress.
CHELSEA PARSONS: And the analogy that I think is really useful here is efforts that have been taken to prevent counterfeiting.
ALLYN: Adobe Photoshop has tried to clamp down on people using the software to generate fake money. Likewise, Parsons says it makes sense that 3D printing businesses are trying to get ahead of the issue.
PARSONS: To say your technology is being used for a purpose you certainly didn't intend. That purpose poses risks to our communities.
ALLYN: Even though the risk isn't immediate, gun control advocates like Parsons say to airlines, courthouses and other places with tight security, the idea of a plastic gun slipping through a metal detector is a real fear. And if a 3D-printed gun got in the wrong hands and someone used it to carry out violence, there could be an avalanche of lawsuits brought against the makers of 3D printing machines. That's according to Tom Baker. He's a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in liability and insurance issues.
TOM BAKER: If I were a 3D printing manufacturer, I would certainly be thinking about this quite a bit.
ALLYN: Lawmakers in Washington are also thinking about this. Two bills have been introduced in the Senate hoping to make it harder for people to use printers to create fully functional guns. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia.
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