3-D Printing and Firearms Revisited: A Complete Gun and Renewed Calls for Regulation

September 24, 2013

Tuesday, September 24, 2013, by Timothy McKeever
In March, a post on this blog reported on the story of Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed, who, at that time, had created a fully functional lower receiver for an AR-15 assault rifle using a 3-D printer.  That article discussed the possible need for new regulation to address the potential risks created by 3-D printing technology that allows people to produce firearm components from their own living rooms.  Since then, Wilson and Defense Distributed went a step further, successfully producing a complete handgun, “The Liberator,” using a 3-D printer.  The group shared the digital schematics for that handgun online, allowing anyone with access to the site and a 3-D printer to create their own with just a few clicks of the mouse.  Shortly thereafter, the Department of State responded to Wilson’s activities.

In the wake of renewed attention to gun regulations, 3-D printable firearms will likely continue to be the target of legislative proposals seeking to restrict access to firearms.

In a letter on May 8th, the Department of State Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance “demand[ed] that [Wilson] take down the online blueprints for the 3D-printable “Liberator” handgun that [Wilson]’s group released [May 5th], along with nine other 3D-printable firearms components hosted on [Defense Distributed]’s website.”  The letter alleged that publicly sharing the Computer Assisted Drafting (“CAD”) digital files used to 3-D print the Liberator and other firearm components violates the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) as “technical data” relating to items on the restricted munitions list.  Wilson complied, removing the CAD files from the group’s website.
But the State Department’s action might still be too late—downloads of the Liberator schematics topped 100,000 in just two days, Defense Distributed garnered significant support, and the publicity inspired numerous imitators. Though the letter may have slowed Wilson’s direct downloads temporarily, the alleged “damage” is in many ways already done— and the original Liberator design still remains available for download from numerous other servers.
Supporters of the Defense Distributed mission, who include Second Amendment and free-internet advocates, maintain that the State Department inquiry relies on nothing more than a technicality.  Critics contend that the Defense Distributed activities with 3-D printing technology create serious dangers in need of urgent attention.  The issue has been the subject of legislative concerns in the past.  In December 2012, New York Congressman Steve Israel raised the issue before Congress after Defense Distributed revealed its AR-15 lower, calling for renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act—a different legal ground than those in the State Department letter.  After the release of Defense Distributed’s entirely printed gun, New York Senator Charles Schumer voiced his support for prohibition of 3-D printed firearms, announcing that he and Representative Israel would introduce and co-sponsor the “Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act” to renew the prior law and update it to account for 3-D technology.  The twin proposed bills, S. 1149 and H.R. 1474, currently sit in Committee awaiting further action.  In the wake of renewed attention to gun regulations, 3-D printable firearms will likely continue to be the target of legislative proposals seeking to restrict access to firearms.  The current Undetectable Firearms Act is set to expire in December 2013.  It remains unclear whether the State Department letter to Wilson signals an intent to regulate 3-D printable on entirely different grounds. Regardless, as the capabilities of the technology improve and the price of home 3-D printers declines, the issue is likely to grow.
Although Wilson complied with the State Department request, recent revelations hint that the aftermath of the inquiry has not fully played out for him and his group. In July, JP Morgan Chase Bank terminated the back account for Wilson’s affiliated host site for CAD files, and PayPal suspended Defense Distributed’s account, a means of fundraising for the group.  These troubles are not the first obstacle faced by the group, however. Before completing the Liberator, Defense Distributed had its first 3-D printer confiscated by the company who had leased it to them after they learned of its intended purpose.  In February, the IRS placed Defense Distributed’s application for non-profit exemption on hold. Despite these setbacks, at little over one year old, Defense Distributed has undoubtedly captured attention and had their message heard.