The national debate on gun control just heated up again, thanks to the technology of 3D printing. Last Thursday, the U.S. government ordered Defense Distributed, an organization based out of Texas, to take its blueprints to print guns on 3D printers off the Internet. The plans were downloaded over 100,000 times before the order, and then resurfaced on other Web sites, proving the near impossibility of preventing their dissemination. Many First and Second Amendment defenders are now crying foul against the government, while others reel at the horror of the possibility of criminals and madmen casually printing guns in their basement for devious schemes.
3D printers range in their size, functionality and price, and are becoming more readily available and affordable to consumers. With a little imagination, design, and the touch of a button on a machine that fits on a tabletop, consumer 3D printers use digital blueprints to quickly make small three-dimensional solid plastic objects, around 410 cubic inches in size, like the popular MakerBot Replicator 2. These machines enable consumers to turn their own homes into mini-factories, making or replicating a wide array of fun or useful plastic items, from jewelry and figurines, to smartphone cases and replicas of long lost vacuum cleaner parts in need of replacement. Those with the means for commercial 3D printers can think even grander, and print such things as the replica of a rare Aston Martin car, which was made and then blown up by the producers of the film Skyfall to preserve the highly valuable original.
Somewhere in the middle are 3D printed guns, which Defense Distributed’s co-founder, Cody R. Wilson, designed and printed on an industrial Stratasys Dimension SST 3D printer, bought off eBay for $8,000. Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas, is a self- described “crypto-anarchist,” which are essentially anarchists of the digital age, who prefer anonymous transactions under pseudonyms on the Internet to preserve their privacy and political freedom.
Defense Distributed’s Facebook page proudly boasts itself as the “Home of the Wiki Weapon: a decentralized project to produce freely available designs for a 3D-printable firearm.” Its dramatic and stylized YouTube video promoting the gun, called the “Liberator” after one-shot pistols the Allies air-dropped in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, alludes to the wartime propaganda videos created by many governments to invoke passion, patriotism, and action. In an interview with television personality Glenn Beck, Cody boasted the 3D printing of guns as an alternative manufacturing of guns since it does not require expert knowledge, and that he believes giving someone a magazine is a political act because it creates radical equality. Wilson seems to be simultaneously spouting the tenets of foundational American beliefs of free speech and equality, while challenging its current government with modern hyper-technological and anarchistic methods.
When the government, more specifically the State Department Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance, demanded that Defense Distributed take down the blueprints from the Internet, it cited the need to review them for compliance with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which controls arms exports. Wilson responded by asserting that his organization falls under the exemption for non-profit organization’s public domain releases of such controlled information, but complied anyway.
Another law currently appears to prohibit the 3D printing of guns. The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, enacted before 3D printed guns were even a possibility, makes it illegal to “manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer, or receive” firearms or any parts that cannot be detected by an airport metal detector. The law had been renewed twice since its enactment, but is again due to expire in December of this year, ironically when 3D printed guns are now actually a reality. New York Congressman Steve Israel had already started efforts late last year to renew the law in an effort to stop the widespread printing of 3D guns.
While Defense Distributed’s ethos is political and activist in nature, in addition to inciting thought and action, it has stirred up a lot of controversy as well, which was likely equally intended. The government cannot realistically prevent large-scale dissemination of information over the Internet once a file download has spread like wildfire, and it always needs to be careful of establishing precedent for any censorship of lawfully expressed ideas on the Internet. Either way, the 3D printing of guns has added another layer to the already complicated debate on gun control and Internet censorship. The government’s need to balance personal freedom, free speech, and the right to bear arms against ensuring the safety of the community has never been more complex.