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3D printers at public libraries 'not a real-world concern,' officials say

Robert Lusak, director of the Smithtown Public Library,

Robert Lusak, director of the Smithtown Public Library, demonstrates the operation of one of its 3D printers. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Using the 3D printers available in dozens of Long Island’s public libraries to make untraceable and undetectable plastic guns would be difficult, if not impossible, librarians said.

“It’s not a real-world concern at this time,” said Kevin Verbesey, director of the Suffolk County Cooperative Library System. “And no, we would not allow our devices to be used for these purposes.”

Tech-savvy libraries have for years been the first stop for many people interested in 3D printing, offering cheap and easy access to almost anyone with a library card. Today roughly 23 library systems in Suffolk County and 20 in Nassau County operate 3D printers, which commonly use a material like plastic filament in layers to produce an object. 

But there’s a gap between the public imagination of cutting-edge technology and the reality in library workshops, where entry-level machines can take 30 minutes to print a half-inch Pikachu figure.

“Most libraries have a $2,000 MakerBot,” said Marc D. Leonard, a mechanical engineer who teaches a course on 3D printing at Nassau Community College, referring to a popular printer model. The  material used in similar printers wouldn’t withstand the “high temperatures and high stresses” need for firearms production, he said. “You’re more likely to melt the plastic and blow it up rather than fire a projectile.”

There are additional obstacles, he said: Some firearm components would likely have to be made from metal or a special polymer, and the accuracy of a basic printer lags far behind that of even a midrange industrial model that might cost $50,000. “It’s not so simple as download a file and print,” he said.

Other practical considerations come into play. Most printed objects have a porous interior to save material and printing time; a firearm, by contrast, would require a solid-fill build taking many hours to produce, Verbesey said in an email.

Then there are the rules. In Smithtown, Long Island’s largest library system, which has a printer in each of its four branches, librarians review every printing request and patrons must fill out a request form with their name and library card information, library director Robert Lusak said.

Smithtown librarians approved the request of a local dentist who wanted a replica of the dental pick used by his father, who was also a dentist. But when a hunter wanted to print a buck knife, “we said no.” No one has requested to print a firearm, Lusak said, and if they did, they answer would also be no, he said, citing library policy that prohibits using the printers to create material that is “unsafe, harmful, dangerous or poses an immediate threat to the well-being of others.”

All Suffolk County library systems have similar policies in place, Verbesey said.

Jackie Thresher, Nassau Library System director, said her office was preparing a September survey for member libraries that will ask which of them operate 3D printers and what printer policies are in place. Some, like Levittown, prohibit printing weapons or “objects that can be conceived as weapons.” Under those rules, library staff have stepped in several times over the past four years to halt printing of a knife, nunchucks and what looked like firearm components, director Trina Reed said. 
 

For a librarian, the dangers and possibilities of 3D printing can be difficult philosophical territory, Thresher said. “At the core of our profession is privacy advocacy,” she said. “We think people can read and think about things and that doesn’t make them dangerous.” But, she said, “Making a gun that can’t be detected through airport security, that gets around existing laws, that’s a little different from reading a book or watching a video.”

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