3D Printing and Firearms – Time for Regulation?

March 7, 2013

Thursday, March 7, 2013, by Anu Madan
From human cartilage to car parts, and football shoes to musical instruments, 3D printing promises to change the way we manufacture every-day items.  Essentially, 3D printing technology turns a simple blueprint into a physical object.  Last week, Cody Wilson, a University of Texas law student, and his nonprofit, Defense Distributed, successfully printed a gun capable of firing over 600 rounds.  A few months back, the group printed the lower receiver of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, but it failed after only six rounds.
The lower receiver determines whether a weapon can be classified as a firearm.  This part serves as the frame for other components of the gun and is the only part regulated for sale.  According to Defense Distributed, its most recent printout is the “first publicly printed AR lower demonstrated to withstand a large volume of .223 without structural degradation or failure.”
Although hobbyists and gunsmiths have been building and modifying firearms for centuries, never before has it been this easy.  According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the law enforcement organization responsible for enforcing Federal laws and regulations relating to firearms, under the Gun Control Act of 1968, “a firearm may be made by a nonlicensee provided it is not for sale and the maker is not prohibited from possessing firearms.”  Individual gun owners who create these products for their own personal use, using 3D printers or otherwise, are under no legal obligation to engrave a serial number, a unique code used to identify where and when a firearm was manufactured.

3D printers can be readily purchased, and the blueprints for these lower receivers can be easily downloaded with a click of the mouse.

Although neither Mr. Wilson nor Defense Distributed violated any firearm laws, there is some cause for concern.  3D printers can be readily purchased, and the blueprints for these lower receivers can be easily downloaded with a click of the mouse.  Without serial numbers, tracking the movement of firearms becomes a tremendous challenge.  For groups seeking access to a large number of firearms, technology that could create untraceable weapons would be extremely advantageous.
3D printing has many benefits.  However, many believe that in the wrong hands, this technology could have devastating effects.   Perhaps some regulation of technology that expands access to dangerous weapons is needed.