A 25-year-old University of Texas law student stirred up a hornet's nest recently when he showed off his new creation -- a working plastic gun -- made on a 3-D printer. Cody Wilson put the plans on the Internet. Just as quickly, the state department ordered their removal, citing a ban of unauthorized firearms trafficking abroad. Wilson's supporters call it a breakthrough, but not everyone is impressed.
"To print one of these 3-D printed guns, that's probably a $1,000 or more and it's not going to last very long," said Pierre Maurer from Moddler, Inc.
Moddler is a San Francisco 3-D printing business. There they believe Wilson's breakthrough is mainly psychological and political. Yes, he's printed a weapon, but it's inferior to traditional guns in almost every way.
"This is a piece we downloaded online. It's a clip, illegal in California," said Maurer.
The folks at Moddler printed a magazine for an AR-15 type rifle from plans downloaded from Wilson's Defense Distributed website.
"I'm going to show you how brittle it really is. So, if you squeeze it, it's just going to break apart," said Maurer.
We don't know yet how durable these guns are in the real world, but as a psychological and political shot across the bow of gun control advocates, it may have a lasting effect.
Producing an object like this starts with a 3-D model. Then the printer reproduces the model by laying down successive layers of material -- in this case plastic. Primarily, it's used to make a prototype or prove a concept. Not to be durable.
The concern is that people who shouldn't have guns - felons and terrorists - would be able to print guns secretly in their homes. In reality, at this point, it would be easier to steal them. That's because machines that could turn them out reliably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And the starter models you can buy over the Internet, just aren't ready yet.
"You're talking about a Fiat versus a Ferrari. They're just radically different things," said John Vegher from Moddler, Inc.
This San Francisco software engineer has one of those Fiats. Xavi Vives spent $700 online to acquire a 3-D printer, then spent hours putting it together. Hardware and software limitations make printing a gun with this gear unlikely. Still advances in technology will eventually make it possible.
"I think it's necessary. We need people to challenge these positions and the earlier we do that, the better the industry will progress," said Vives.
"The technology itself is neither good nor evil, it all depends on what you use it for," said Vegher.
But the debate is liable to get even more intense as 3-D printing evolves. Advanced printers can use metal, composite or even biological material. If and when somebody decides to use those to make a weapon, government regulation may not be far behind.