These are trying times for guns in America. The country is more polarized than ever over what to do with the constitutionally enshrined, vaguely defined "right to bear arms" that many Americans see as their birthright and others see as an imminent threat to their lives and liberties.
This is also an economic boom time for weapons manufacturers and merchants. Guns and ammo, including the infamous Bushmaster — the military-style AR-15 assault rifle clone used in the Sandy Hook massacre in December as well as by the Washington, D.C., sniper a decade ago — are flying off the shelves faster than storekeepers can stock them. If this is a Democratic conspiracy to disarm the public before a government takeover — despite the highly-publicized 1.6 billion-round ammo buy by the Department of Homeland Security last year, law enforcement officials now complain that ammo is in such short supply that they have had to cut back on training — it's also a capitalist scheme that's helping gun makers' bottom lines.
There's also a booming cottage industry. Anyone with an Internet connection can access a working model of a firearm, and anyone with a 3-D printer can download a working gun. And in San Francisco, a publishing house is offering a novel way to make weapons at home.
With LEGO blocks.
The brainchild of Texas-based gun geek Jeff Boen, blueprints for "working" and "ultra-realistic models" of some of the world's most-recognizable handguns are available in the just-released BrickGun Book, published by San Francisco-based No Starch Press.
The guns aren't real, just really real-looking. Only one — the early 1990s-gangsta rap-video-worthy MAC-11 — fires, and it shoots rubber bands, not bullets, pellets or any solid projectile that could pierce skin or do damage.
But other than that, they're impressively — and intentionally — close to the real thing. The slides work, the triggers have real-feeling actions, and one pistol has a removable magazine. So much like the real thing, in fact, that gun aficionado websites went "positively ballistic" over Boen's designs (his words).
If the timing seems crass or opportunistic, it's not: Boen first put out web-based instructions on how to build LEGO guns, brick by brick, more than a decade ago. The Internet went nuts, with 8,000 hits a day to a site that previously had a few dozen, and it wasn't long before Boen was approached by a publisher to go for a book. He began the laborious process of producing detailed LEGO-manual worthy illustrations way back in 2011, he tells SF Weekly via an e-mail interview conducted through an intermediary.
BrickGuns are not just for gun nuts, he explains. "Most people see [the book] for its merits, which are incredibly accurate design work and attention to detail," he says. As for the popularity, it "was a complete surprise to me" that, he says, has as much to do with the country's persistent fascination with guns as with the models' craftsmanship and attention to detail.
Book publisher Bill Pollock's No Starch Press has put out how-tos on LEGO guns before, but never before have they been quite so realistic — or at such a sensitive time. Though these aren't weapons, he stresses, any more than a LEGO pirate ship is a vessel for a budding buccaneer. "We have a saying around the office that this book teaches how to build the world's least dangerous guns," he says. "We believe there are limitless options for what people can build with LEGO bricks and The BrickGun Book is one example of that idea."
Yet if adults are going gaga over the LEGO guns, it stands to reason kids will, too. Kids, after all, have been crafting model LEGO guns out of multicolored bricks — and Lincoln Logs, and Tinker Toys, and anything else available — since the Danish toys were first sold.
These guns are not for kids, a warning on the 224-page book says, or at least not for kids under 12. Anyone carrying their BrickGuns in public should be aware that the toys don't have the bright orange tips that tell the world — and especially police officers — that the realistic piece in their hands is just a sophisticated plaything.
Of course, these days a gun need not even be remotely realistic to expose its holder to serious risk. School officials have hair-triggers over clearly fake guns — such as the Massachusetts 6-year-old suspended for bringing a LEGO figure-sized "gun," no larger than a quarter, onto a school bus, and the Washington state elementary students suspended for playing with Nerf guns at school, with a teacher's permission. How will law enforcement or other jumpy real-gun owners react when seeing an "ultra-realistic" Beretta out on the street? In Canada, a BrickGun builder was reported to police when a neighbor spied him assembling a piece through a window.
Meanwhile, international sales of the books have been good, especially, says Boen, in gun-restrictive Australia. But for all its success overseas, The BrickGun Book is purely American: It's gonna sell, and sell like crazy.