A Blessing and a Curse

By now, most of you have probably heard about Defense Distributed’s october surprise. They have chosen to make CNC milling more accessible to the masses with a machine that you can use to make receivers for about $1500. It looks like the mill starts with an 80% lower. The Wired article talks about how milling machines typically cost tens of thousands of dollars, but there are affordable mills out there that you could do more with.

My friend Jason, who has experimented with making firearms and written about it here on this blog, has a Taig mill. It would cost you a few hundred more dollars to build a protective enclosure around it, which he would recommend, since he once had a bit break off and fly across the room and embed itself in the wall before he decided to build one. This is, of course, about double the price of DD’s mill, but with a full blown Taig setup, you can make receivers from a block of aluminum.

Nonetheless, this move significantly increases the accessibility of home built firearms, and I believe that is going to be both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing, because it is now irrefutably true that gun control can never work. It is a curse because there are plenty of political elites who haven’t yet figured that out, and this gives them a new issue.

3D printing and CNC milling is new as a mass market technology (it’s existed for a long time, but only as industrial technology that was priced beyond what an ordinary consumer could afford). Being a new technology it’s going to scare people. People are more easily frightened  by technologies they don’t understand, and between all the billionaires arrayed against us, and a media able and eager to whip up public fears about guns, we could end up in a tough spot.

Our opponents in the gun ban movement have always had more luck with issues that don’t affect all that many gun owners. Remember that when the assault weapons hysteria was at its zenith in the late 80s and early 90s, not very many gun owners were familiar with the AR-15 or AK family. High-power shooters were still using the M1A, largely. That unfamiliarity bred opportunity for our opponents, because as long as you could keep your M1s, M1As, M1 Carbines, and Mini-14s, they had a lot more leeway to get the ratchet on the nut, which could always be tightened later.

The way I see it, the gun ban crowd has several options to deal with this:

  • They could change the definition of an unfinished lower. This could be done at a whim, as what constitutes an 80% lower is ATF policy, not federal regulation. It wouldn’t even require ATF going through formal rule making. They could declare tomorrow that now that 80% lowers are firearms, and create a new 70% standard.
  • They could require an FFL for all manufacturing and end home gun making. This would require an act of Congress. It would be completely useless to control people manufacturing with criminal intent, but there are plenty of people out there among the public, and even more in elected office, who are quite happy to criminalize behavior that frightens them, and they don’t think anyone should be doing anyway.
  • They could restrict CNC and 3D printing technology as a whole. I view this as the least likely option, but if more people find things to do with this technology that scares political elites, you could see a move for this.

So far we have not had any major issues with criminals utilizing this technology. I believe the reason for this is economic — you can buy a gun off the streets in most crime ridden neighborhoods cheaper than you could make one using a CNC machine or a 3D printer. If a criminal want an untraceable gun, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper and easier to dremel the serial number off a gun than to make one from scratch in a garage. But that won’t get us off the hook. A lone wolf criminal or nutcase using this technology in a high-profile incident could be all the pretext the politicians, media, and gun control crowd need to get the ball rolling to restrict home gun building and gun smithing.

I believe Cody Wilson* is playing with fire. I’m not saying he shouldn’t do it, but we all should be aware of what’s going on here, and not kid ourselves. This might convince some people who were already disposed to be skeptical of gun control that it is now impossible, but it’s just as likely to frighten the hell out of the type of people who are easily frightened by new and scary things. Which type of person do you think there are more of?

* Pssst, Cody…. The BYO community could really use a decent home anodization kit. Just saying.

49 thoughts on “A Blessing and a Curse”

  1. The problem is that it really puts the card on the table for the antis. It is perfectly legal to manufacture your own firearm. In order to prevent this, they would have to outlaw that practice and force you to register your firearm with the government. The NRA counter ads and donation requests write themselves after that. “The antis want you to register your guns with the government!” This is a non-starter at the federal level, but surely is possible in the CA/NY/CT spectrum.

    I wholeheartedly disagree with you on this. Cody Wilson is an idea man. He is not one of those Texas open carry folks. This man promotes his ideas, and he stands by them. He makes it clear that these people hate our guts. This is a civil right. I am fully cognizant of the fact that we are not discriminated against like blacks were in the south, but the antis hate us just as much as the Jim Crow folks hated blacks back then. The ideas of self-reliance, self-defense, and self-determination are truly foreign to those who pray at the alter of the state. Those ideas scare them. Good.

    Your suggestion to keep a low profile is akin to saying that we should sit in the back of the bus. At some point, people have had enough. Our movement is just as varied as the civil rights movements was. There was MLK, Malcom X, Huey Newton, and Rosa Parks, among others. We have open carriers, lawyers, everyday folks, and rabble rousers. I’ll take a rabble rouser like Cody Wilson any day of the week.

    1. You don’t have to make this about registration. You just have to make this about banning manufacturing unless you hold an FFL. The antis will make all kinds of noise about untraceable guns.

      1. They going to start in on the “antique loophole” next after they freak about the “manufacturing loophole”? Antiques can be shipped to your door, no background check and fully functional. Often the only difference between an antique and a gun that has to go through a dealer is an arbitrary date stamped on the action.

        They’d be making noise about things that have been legal and untraceable for decades. And somehow, we don’t see criminals availing themselves of underground gun factories churning out AKs or ARs or trolling Gunbroker or antique gun shows for that untraceable pistol or Mauser “high powered rifle”.

    2. I’m also not saying Cody or anyone else shouldn’t do this. But we are quite likely inviting consequences, and we should be ready for them .

  2. Here’s the thing – NJ prohibits manufacture of a firearm without a state-issued permit (or, anyway, that’s what the bit of law I looked at appeared to do). What would they do if I bought one of these things, stored it in a u-rent-it shed in PA, and ran it there, then brought the thing back into NJ. For more federal AND state fun, I assemble (in that shed in PA) as an AR pistol, document that, then reassemble it as an NJ-complliant long-arm and bring it into NJ?

    To a certain extent, the fact that this today requires an 80% lower is a distraction. This will be optimized to whittle away all the bits of a block of metal that aren’t AR-15-lower-shaped (to misquote Tam), if the BATFE lowers what they consider a “firearm.”

    Playing with fire, yes, but using it to light a bigger fire under some of the inherent contradictions of a firearms regulation regime that was implemented to ban firearms, but only a little bit.

    1. And the ATF has redefined “80%” on AR lowers over the years. It used to be a certain amount of drilling or finishing. Then they redefined it for ARs to mean that the FCG pocket had to be solid for an AR lower to be considered 80%.

      So AR 80% lowers made prior to that change had the FCG pocket milled out and the various holes and buffer tube reaming/tapping required to finish it. After the change, these would be considered firearms and the new solid block lowers have all of their holes drilled save for the FCG pocket holes and the pistol grip hole.

      They could easily do it again.

  3. This nails it: …”there are plenty of people out there among the public, and even more in elected office, who are quite happy to criminalize behavior that frightens them, and they don’t think anyone should be doing anyway.”

    What can we do to curb that? Education? Elect better people? Hope some alien species descends on the planet that feeds on ignorance?

  4. I have much respect for Cody Wilson and the folks at Defense Distributed.

    Here is an excellent speech by Cody Wilson at the Free State Project’s (http://www.freestateproject.org) annual New Hampshire Liberty Forum (https://freestateproject.org/events/liberty-forum).

    Cody Wilson – Liberator @NHLF14

    Cody Wilson is a crypto-anarchist and free-market anarchist, and activist, best-known as a founder/director of Defense Distributed, a non-profit organization that develops and publishes open source gun designs, so-called “Wiki Weapons”, suitable for 3D printing. Described by Wired as “one of the most dangerous people in the world” his latest project is Dark Wallet, a browser based Bitcoin wallet.

    1. I want to be clear that I’m not condemning Cody Wilson in any way. I just think what he’s doing is going to invite a fight sooner or later, and we should be ready for it. What concerns me about that fight, is I think it will be on good ground for the antis and weak ground for us. The reason is that home gun making being available for the masses is a new thing, and there’s not yet a very large political constituency. One just has to hope the rest of the gun rights movement is motivated to defend it.

      1. To ban home gun manufacturing, the nuts&bolts will have to be WORSE than Universal Background Checks, and less easily “camoflaged.” Presented right, this could be an even bigger trap than the UBC bills ended up being in CO. That’s the rub, though – presented right.
        To a certain extent, doing this while the CO recalls are still fresh in the political memory helps, since politicians are going ot remember how a “sure thing” blew up in their faces.

      2. It is completely impractical to ban it. Heck, it’s impractical now. Anybody who has seen the Phillipino or Pakistani gun “manufacturing” would know this. Furthermore, the most difficult part of a modern high quality weapon to make is the chamber and barrel. Machining a lower receiver? Heck, those can be made out of PLASTIC. You can’t make decent multi shot barrels out of plastic.

  5. The government may regulate (i.e., standardize) business. They can tax certain business activities. What is reprehensible is for government to attempt to do likewise with personal activities.

  6. HMMM, what are the current rules on manufacturing a gun for yourself? :) :) :)


    1. Federally, basically, don’t make any NFA items without a tax stamp. Otherwise, don’t sell anything you make unless you get a license.

      State and local laws differ but many states don’t have any restrictions other than on NFA items.

      1. As an added detail, a home built firearm must also comply with all State and local laws. Basically, if you couldn’t buy it on the market at the time of construction, you can’t build it.

        For example: Maryland banned the AK pattern rifles effective October 1, 2013. So no one can legally bend or finish an 80% AK receiver in the state or bring in a manufactured AK that was bought after that date. That being said, there will be AK pattern rifles built for YEARS to come in Maryland because of all of the people who stockpiled 81%+ receivers (bent flats or drilled a hole in a pre-bent blank). I know people who literally have milk crates full of bent sheet metal and will be finished as finances and parts kit availability permit. Because the receivers were finished prior to the law taking effect and the receiver is legally the firearm, they can have their remaining parts added anytime thereafter.

        And every single one of those rifles will be untraceable. Prior to the law, AKs were registered with the state and most were purchased that way. Because of a gun control law rammed through, probably thousands, if not tens of thousands, of AKs will wind up in shooters hands. And with no one the wiser.

        If the firearm is built with foreign made parts (such as the aforementioned AK or rifles such as the FAL), it must also comply with 18 USC 922(r) in order to be considered “US Made”. Basically, no more than 10 foreign made parts (the “10 or less” game).

        On the NFA, its restriction is across-the-board regardless of jurisdiction. You cannot build any NFA item without the appropriate licenses or tax stamps. You can make a receiver or frame for an NFA SBR, for example, but would have to engrave that receiver for registration as part of the tax stamp application. For machine guns, there is no hobbyist construction at all. You must have an FFL07+SOT.

    2. Here is where I have concerns. Even on their website, they recommend you not make a lower receiver for anyone else. And that you not loan the mill to anyone else to make their own. In other words, they don’t know if either of those activities could be seen as illegal. And already I’ve heard of clubs that are considering ” a group buy” of a mill. Maybe that’s okay if they all jointly own the mill. But is it?

      Personally, I’d love to make a gun with a lower like this. But at the end of the day, I’d have to figure out the following:
      – When I die, will it be able to be transfered to my heirs? And would they be in trouble just by being around it when I’m not alive?
      – If I don’t have enough room for it in my safe, could I store it at a friend or relative’s house (in their safe) without them getting in trouble.
      – Can i let someone else shoot it with/without me being present?

      Without good answers to questions like these, I’d rather buy a rifle private party.

  7. If they were to require a license to build your own firearm then they run into the First Amendment analogy of requiring a license to practice your religion, write a book, or speak in public. Then there is the mocking we could do… “They are so stupid they believe someone planning to commit a crime with a gun is going to get a government license to build the gun. I’ll bet they also believe they should require people to get a license before they make meth or import heroin.”

    1. That would be the basic strategy to fight it. I think at the end of the day we’ll win on this, but that depends on what kind of pretext they are given to really push the issue, and how soon. The longer it takes for them to get that pretext, the better, because as the technology becomes more widespread, people start to understand and are less easily frightened. What we have to do in the mean time is make a bigger constituency for home building. To the extent that DD is helping with this it’s good. But I worry this could feed an issue the other side could easily win on given the right tragedy to exploit.

      1. Alas, the crazies (as opposed to the criminals) do have time, money, and plans. The danger isn’t crooks, it’s crazies.

        1. Criminals have time, money, and plans, too, at least the bigger or organized ones.

          (Or, in the case of a Brady Dream State, the criminals that will make guns precisely and solely for the black market…

          Illegal, you say? Thus, more profitable!)

          1. I was assuming the legal regime as-is; IE, a “home-built” firearm is more likely to come to prominence due to a crazy than a crook. If nothing else, the crook is less likely to make a news splash when he uses it.

  8. This is one area that Cody Wilson should have left unnoticed.
    He is not bringing any new technology, or, ideas to the process, including, pricing.
    Many have, quietly, been using CNC machines to homebrew AR15’s and 1911’s, for years without headlines. The same as Cody’s current project purports to do.
    Using common industrial surplus CNC machines from the 70’s and 80’s converted with Windows castoff hardware, it is possible to come in under his $1200 machine with more capabilities, except, for a footprint that fits on top of a desk.
    This is just another cheap headline attention grab in the hopes of making a couple of dollars, making headlines, and drawing the attention of the gun control zealots.

    1. Wow, say more: I’m interested! Got some links to ebay or craigslist on some of these? (I’m a just-become-empty-nester, and so have (1) more space than I’ve had before, (2) more time to tinker with things, and than I’ve had in a long time, (3) interest in learning more about metalworking, and (4) the obvious interest in firearms.

  9. I find it rather funny…

    A firearm is a tool.

    A 3d printer or a milling machine (CNC or not) are just tools.
    You cannot regulate tools as there will always be cases where doing so interferes with the smooth operation of business and
    personal use. I can use a 3D printer to make models and small part for any use as its an inexpensive way to make odd shaped parts. I can also do that with a mill being it little Taig
    or a much larger Bridgeport knee mill. The idea I’d have to register to have a mill that can be used to make parts for radios or maybe a model air plane because it might be used to make a firearm is seriously wrong. Whats’ next saws, battery operated drills or maybe a set of mill files? Maybe even the availability of metal?

    Its beyond unrealistic bordering on the absurd.


    1. Sure, why not require registration? I spent half of the 1980’s living in a country that required registration of manual typewriters!

  10. Hey, our companies tech center in japan has a 3D printer that prints in METAL. High quality parts. The cat is way out of the bag. By the way our cnc machines can take a block of aluminum or steel and make a complete lower in a few short minutes. We call that the 0% lower.

      1. They didn’t say, but my guess would be a few million. It is pretty fast and real cool to watch though. I can imagine printing 1911 barrels, sure easier than machining then rifeling the barrel. Don’t forget that the plastic 3d printers were very expensive when they first appeared about a decade ago.

  11. There’s a fourth option for the antis: try to regulate ammunition and/or gunpowder and/or primers more than they are now. Prohibiting people from milling a block of metal into smaller metal pieces will be difficult, but restricting certain chemical formulations would probably have more success. Yeah you can make your own rudimentary black powder with some basic chemistry, but smokeless powder and primers are a bit more complicated and nothing so easy as buying a CNC machine and pressing “start”.

    1. This is the approach King George took.

      For years prior to 1775 there were pretty strict restrictions on powder-related manufacturing and imports in the colonies. Even back then home gunsmithing was something that was technologically pretty hard to stop.

    2. The reloading constituency is highly motivated to pushback against this, though; and any regs like this are likely to draw in the rocketry folks and the blackpowder folks as well. (Cue Cemetery).

  12. They will never acknowledge that gun control doesn’t work. There is plenty evidence now, with no attempt to even evaluate it. And it won’t matter whether or not criminals do this- they pay more attention to what we’re doing than what criminals are doing anyway.

  13. Don’t get too hung up on the 80% figure. I doubt that ATF has any official policy that says firearms have to be “80% finished” (whatever that means). I think the 80% stuff is just marketing on our side. If you go to gunbroker right now, you can find people selling 90% and 95% lowers (which look a lot like what other people call 80% lowers). In ATF’s eyes, it’s either a firearm or it isn’t. You send them something and they make a determination whether it’s a firearm or not. If they say it’s not, you can call it 50% finished, 80% finished, a potato salad, whatever you want. But it’s not a firearm. Unless they change their mind, in which case it is and always has been. Oceania is at war with Eastasia, and has always been at war with Eastasia.

    Note that if you make something and start selling it as an 80% (or whatever) lower without getting a determination from ATF, you might get a nasty surprise down the road. A while back a manufacturer of plastic 80% lowers found themselves in that very position when the ATF decided that they were selling guns and not hunks of plastic. Don’t be that guy. But even a determination letter won’t always help because ATF does have that nasty habit of changing their minds. IANAL, but I suspect it would at least shield you from prosecution.

    Also, there is no federal prohibition on selling homemade firearms. But if you make a habit of it, you’re likely to be accused of being in the business of manufacturing and selling firearms without the proper licenses.


  14. A few thoughts:

    * the only real option the federal government has is to ban all manufacturing without an FFL
    * if ATF broadly redefines firearm receiver outside of APA, there will be litigation
    * manufacturing is not assembly
    * how would states or ATF enforce a law that bans home assembly without, as Kevin de Leon found out the hard way, going completely down the fully-retroactive serialization and registration rabbit hole?
    * not even Jerry Brown bought into the “ghost gun” hype BS

    We beat it once, and we’d beat it again (on the policy, or on the law).


  15. They’ll eventually probably just make the upper receiver and barrel serialized parts just like the lower. These are much harder to make at home. No more mail ordering a .357 Sig barrel for your .40 without FFL fees and hassle. No more .22 conversion kits for your 1911 without FFL. Want a new upper for that stripped lower? Same thing….

        1. They have no chance to get it past the House, and the Senate we have isn’t doing gun control any time soon either. Ask me again second week in November

    1. Such an act would destroy the firearms cottage industry and anger a lot of people. If you serialize barrels and make them subject to FFL transfers, entire business sectors collapse. I can’t see that ever gaining any traction without massive pushback as it would affect everyone, not just ARs.

  16. “They could restrict CNC and 3D printing technology as a whole. I view this as the least likely option, but if more people find things to do with this technology that scares political elites, you could see a move for this.”

    3b: They pull an Operation Choke Point on the manufacturers of the equipment: “Want any more govt contracts, export licenses, permits to operate? Don’t want to see the IRS / EPA / EEOC / ATF tying up your time for endless investigations. audits, etc.? Install a chip that prevents the following objects from being milled / printed, and an internet connection for continuous updates that breaks the machine if removed or disabled.”

    Who needs anything as gauche as published laws or regulations?

    1. The only way a chip could stop a printing of a 3d item is to destroy the printer or make massive changes to the technology.

      Most printer can’t print a scanned dollar bill any more. There is a pattern written onto the face of the bill that prevents it.

      However, 10 seconds on google gives photo quality reproductions that can be easily reprinted. You will find a much more complex version of the problem in 3d printing.

      “I can’t build a rectangle box with a 15* taper on the top? Fine, give me a rectangle box with an oversized 16* taper on the side.”

      This technology won’t be stopped.

      1. Minor correction: The pattern began on the $5 (Series 2006), $10 (Series 2004A), $20 (Series 2004), $50 (Series 2004), $100 (Series 2009, 2009A, Now circulated).

    2. Don’t forget about the big boy milling machines. The once 1 million dollar machines can be picked up used for a couple of thou. At the local used equipment dealer there are rows as far as the eye can see. Get a few buds together and start your own machine shop.

Comments are closed.