Advances in 3-D printing technology are fueling Wilson’s goal. The printers were developed for the automobile, aerospace and other industries to create product prototypes from the same hard plastics used in toys such as Legos. Hobbyists mainly use the printers to design Christmas ornaments, toys and gadget accessories.
Prices of the machines have fallen as the consumer market grows, leading to a surge in interest from people in the so-called “maker” scene. Low-end 3-D printers can now be purchased online for as little as $1,500. More high-end printers needed to make gun parts cost at least $10,000.
Stratasys Ltd. makes 3-D printers, but gun-making was never something envisioned for the machines, said Shane Glenn, director of investor relations at the Eden Prairie, Minn.-based company.
“The gun issue is something that the 3-D printing industry will have to address going forward,” Glenn said.
Right now, most people interested in 3-D printing rent time on one of the machines. There are a number of businesses and co-ops in major cities that allow access to the machines for a nominal fee.
At San Francisco’s TechShop, which features a 3-D printer for its members, assembling firearms is strictly prohibited and staff is trained on the policy, company spokeswoman Carrie Motamedi said.
Wilson acknowledged his idea has met resistance from those active in 3-D printing.
“The early adopters of 3-D printing technology seem to be an educated, more liberal group who were against firearms to begin with,” he said.
Some involved in the development of the technology are now worried the gun project might spur regulations that will hurt or curtail their projects, he added.
Early schematics created by Wilson’s group were posted on Thingiverse, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based website that serves as a hub for 3-D printing aficionados. After the school shooting, Thingiverse took down the links.
Spokeswoman Jenifer Howard said the focus of the website is “to empower the creative process and make things for good.”
Thingiverse’s terms of service state the site cannot be used to share content that contributes to the creation of weapons.
Wilson said his group has posted the links to the schematics on its own website.
Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology forecaster who teaches at Stanford University’s engineering school, said the Defense Distributed work carries on a tradition of tech geeks using innovation to make a political point, in this case on gun control and Second Amendment freedom.
“If you want to get people’s attention in Washington, you say something. If you want to do it in Silicon Valley, you make something,” Saffo said.