Edward Currie, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Hofstra University, explained how 3D printers work on Thursday.  Credit: Michael Owens

Imagine pushing a button on a printer and creating a handgun made of the same plastic used in Legos.

The prospect that 3D printers will usher in an age of downloadable weapons has sparked a national debate — and is raising red flags for law enforcement officials across Long Island.

Many officials oppose the plastic guns. They worry about terrorists and criminals. They think about the guns falling into the hands of kids and the mentally ill. They point out the weapons are easy to conceal and hard to trace. Metal detectors can’t see them and they don’t turn up on any firearms registry or database. The gunmakers won’t have to go through any background check.

“It makes our communities unsafe,” said Madeline Singas, the Nassau County district attorney. “It makes our jobs in law enforcement much harder.”

Supporters of the homemade weapons, though, defend the technology and the constitutional right to own a gun.

“This is freedom,” said Erich Pratt, who heads Gun Owners of America, a lobbying group. “Why wouldn’t the Second Amendment protect the right of a law-abiding citizen to make his or her own weapons?”

The issue came to a head last week when a federal judge temporarily blocked a Texas-based company from posting blueprints for 3D guns on its website. A month earlier, the Trump administration had signed off on the release of the plans.

When the 3D printer came onto the scene, Americans saw them as a way to make earrings, model cars, pens and wrenches. Medicine embraced the technology to make artificial limbs.

Then, the judge’s order came down and Americans on both sides of the gun debate laid out what was at stake: free speech, gun rights, the power of new technology, the internet’s broad reach — and the government’s role in public safety.

From gun shops on Long Island and to the Oval Office, lines are being drawn. The business owners, for the most part, stand firm on the Second Amendment right to own a gun. President Donald Trump tweeted his concern. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and nearly two dozen of his counterparts are vowing to crack down on the weapons through state legislation. At airports across on the country, security officials are training workers on new ways to spot the weapons.

“We are in the early stages of society’s discussion on this,” said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at SUNY Cortland. “But now is the time to make decisions, and not wait until it becomes more prolific.”

The future is now

Americans are already creating 3D guns. They have been for about five years.

In 2013, self-described anarchist Cody Wilson fired the world’s first gun made with a 3D printer. Immediately, he posted blueprints for the gun to his website. Less than a week later, the federal government stepped in, contending Wilson had violated export laws because a number of the people who lived outside the United States had accessed the plans. Nonetheless, in a few days, the number of downloads totaled more than 100,000.

Wilson wasn’t going to be denied his goal of making his Texas-based nonprofit, Defense Distributed, what he describes as a digital clearinghouse for 3D gun-making. He sued the Obama administration, citing his right to freely share information under the First Amendment and his Second Amendment right to bear arms. The Trump administration settled with Wilson in June, allowing him to put the blueprints back online. Then came the temporary restraining order last week.

The number of downloads in such a short time proves a point about another modern innovation, the internet and the spread of information. The internet’s breadth and openness could make it difficult to control who downloads 3D gun blueprints, said Mike Murphy, a journalist who has covered technology for years.

“That’s like trying to hold back the tide,” said Murphy, a deputy editor for Quartz, a news website.

Twenty-one state attorneys general, including New York’s Barbara Underwood, have sent a letter to their federal counterpart, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, laying out their concerns. They characterized the Trump administration’s decision as “deeply dangerous and could have an unprecedented impact on public safety.

The enforcers

The widespread availability of 3D guns and what that would mean for public safety isn’t lost on local police officials and prosecutors.

They’re easy to make — at home, perhaps even the office. They’re cheap, comparatively speaking. They don’t have a serial number so they can’t be tracked. The plastic can’t be detected like metal.

To be clear, prosecutors say, 3D guns are illegal in New York state. But if weapons that are legal can create a host of headaches for public servants, then Long Island and New York City officials are bracing for what might be ahead.

The top law enforcement officers in Nassau and Suffolk start with the sheer numbers.

Suffolk Police Chief Stuart Cameron already sees homemade guns, metal ones made from kits. Illegal guns of all kinds are making their way into Nassau County, too, says Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, and the number is bound to jump with 3D guns.

“It’s always bothersome to us when you make our jobs harder,” Ryder said. “So the 3D process ... it needs to be looked at and it needs not to happen. It needs to be stopped.”

And Cameron points out police officers not only have to worry about the public’s safety but also their own.

“With plastic guns, you can make it look like anything,” Cameron said. “You can make a gun look like a phone. That’s a threat to law enforcement because you can look in a car and see something that is a gun, but does not look like a gun.”

For Suffolk’s district attorney, Timothy Sini, 3D guns are a prosecutor’s worst nightmare.

He starts with the licensing process. In New York, a person needs to provide the serial number of the weapon to get a license — but a 3D gun doesn’t have a serial number so it can’t be licensed.

Then, there’s the difficulty in tracing a 3D gun. A standard gun leaves marks on the bullet that are like fingerprints, Sini said, making it traceable if used in a crime.

“With these weapons you can’t do that,” he said. “It is extremely troubling to law enforcement.”

Manhattan’s district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., doubled down on the inability to both trace and detect 3D guns.

“Invisible to metal detectors, these plastic guns could easily be smuggled onto airplanes and into concerts, festivals and government buildings,” Vance said in a statement, adding that terrorists and domestic abusers who can’t pass a background check could get a weapon by simply downloading the blueprints.

Singas, the Nassau DA, echoed the points made by her counterparts. And she questions putting 3D guns on the streets at a time when America is dealing with a rash of mass shootings in the past few years. Less than six months ago, a gunman took 17 lives at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

“You can be a terrorist, a violent person or mentally ill,” she said, “but if you have a 3D printer in your home you can make a gun.

The gun community

Supporters of 3D guns rattle off reasons to make their case: the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, the chilling effect on innovation.

But the National Rifle Association, the biggest gun rights advocate in the country, is making a more basic argument: 3D guns are already illegal.

In 1988, Congress passed the Undetectable Firearms Act, which made it illegal to make, import, sell, ship, deliver or receive an undetectable firearm. President Ronald Reagan signed the measure.

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

Before the judge issued the restraining order Tuesday, Trump tweeted: “I am looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public. Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense!” Hours later, the administration came out in support of the existing federal law.

Democrats are critical of the law, which they say doesn’t cover all 3D guns. A 3D gun can be made with a piece of metal, making it detectable and in compliance with the federal law. The catch, they say, is that the metal can be removed.

To close the loophole, Democrats are pushing for a law that would require all guns have at least one nonremovable metal component so they couldn’t pass unnoticed through a metal detector. Separately, they want a law prohibiting the publication of a digital file online that allows a 3D printer to manufacture a firearm.

More laws won’t make a difference to lawbreakers, supporters say. Pratt, the head of the gun owners group, calls the argument that 3D guns will be a boon for criminals “a red herring.”

“Criminals will always break the law and will always get their hands on some kind of weapon,” he said. “The rights of law-abiding citizens should not be infringed simply because criminals refuse to obey the law. Otherwise, all our rights would be in jeopardy.”

There’s disagreement, though, even in the gun community.

Burt Benowitz, owner of Benson Gun Shop in Coram and the Medford Shooting Range, doesn’t like the idea of 3D guns one bit.

“I think it’s a horrible idea. It makes everybody less safe,” Benowitz said. “There would be no way to keep them out of the hands of criminals, terrorists or even children.”

Going through security

In the past two years, airport security workers across the country have found four guns made by 3D printers, federal officials said. The workers detected the firearms during checkpoint screenings of passengers and confiscated the weapons.

“We don’t concern ourselves with policies and legal decisions,” said Michael Bilello, an assistant administrator for the Transportation Security Administration. “In our world, a gun is a gun.”

Because the TSA’s X-ray machines can miss 3D guns, Bilello said, the agency is training security personnel to find the weapons and is rolling out enhanced screening protocols for carry-on bags.

Last year, the TSA started requiring passengers to remove all electronics bigger than a cellphone from their carry-ons when they pass through the entry checkpoint. In general, bags stuffed with big objects will be searched, Bilello added.

“We’re on the lookout for them,” he said. “We’re going to detect it, and turn the person over to law enforcement.”

Technology vs. the law

Technology has a long history of outpacing mankind’s ability to regulate it. The automobile was in existence long before a driver had to have a license. The Wright brothers flew their plane in 1903, but the Federal Aviation Administration didn’t get off the ground until 1958.

Even now, lawmakers are arguing over the proper regulation of drones, Uber and Facebook.

For now, experts of all kinds — even law enforcement officials — agree the level of widespread danger is relatively low.

“It is more of an emerging future problem,” said Cameron.

Looking ahead, several experts said they expect 3D printers to come down in cost — prices range from a couple of hundred dollars for a basic home model to well over $100,000 for commercial ones — and improve in efficiency. Still, they disagree over the technology’s potential to do harm.

Sociologist David Yamane studies American gun culture. As many as 300 million guns are already in circulation in the U.S. so he doesn’t believe 3D guns will add appreciably to the overall number.

“I think it will be a niche part of the gun culture,” Yamane said. “You won’t see the suicide or homicide rate increase because of 3D guns.”

Singas, the Nassau DA, does not buy Yamane’s thinking. She sees a bunch of rank amateurs building deadly weapons in their homes.

“These are not trained people. They might be kids in a basement,” she said. “The end result will be more lives will be lost.”

Printing 3D objects

STEP 1: Design a blueprint with computer-assisted design software. There are three ways to do it: (1) Draw it yourself and use the special software to turn your 2D design into 3D images; (2) use a 3D scanner to scan an object you’d like to copy to create a blueprint; (3) download an existing 3D drawing file.

STEP 2: Send the file to the printer. The printer nozzle heats plastic filament and forces it out like a glue gun. The resulting melted plastic lines are finer than a human hair.

STEP 3: The printer reads the blueprint as a series of points on a plane. A nozzle moves between these points, creating layers of plastic over the course of minutes or hours. The time required will depend on the size of the object, the desired quality of the finish and how solid it is — tighter infill patterns take longer than looser ones, a smoother finish takes longer than a rough one.

STEP 4: Depending on the object, some parts may require assembly.

SOURCES: Hofstra University engineering department (Professor Edward Currie); Makerbot

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