Printing Guns

Photo by James Clayton

In Star Trek: Insurrection, Captain Jean-Luc Picard finds himself surrounded by his slow moving yet deadly opponent, the Borg.  Luckily for Picard, he has access to a “replicator”, a device that can create almost any object on request.  Picard uses the replicator and requests a Tommy gun, which he uses to defend himself.  The idea that someone could possess a machine that could produce any item, including guns, on request was once relegated to the realm of science fiction.  However, recent advances in 3D printing technology are moving people one step, albeit a small one, closer to the actualization of this idea.  The availability of 3D printers and the access to digital blueprints now allows people to produce their own guns, completely removed from the watchful eye and regulatory hand of the state or federal government.  Unlike Star Trek, the question of how the law will deal with someone materializing a gun remains unanswered, and there is an ongoing debate on how the law should treat this new reality.

3D printing is the process of making a solid, three-dimensional (3D) object using a computer model.  This is done through an additive process, whereby the object is created by laying down multiple layers of material.  The technology is used by industries to quickly create prototypes, as well as some manufacturing.  Hobbyists also use the technology to create art or machine components.  While the current technology is in its infancy, it enables an individual to manufacture objects in a precise way that was previously the sole domain of industry.

3D printers are available through popular outlets including where, for example, one can purchase the RapMan Universal 3D Printer for $1,599.  For the financially capable micro-manufacturer, there is the 3D Touch Personal 3D Dual Head Printer which styles itself as a personal color 3D printer that is easy to set up, easy to use, and  ideal for creating prototypes, models, RC parts, toys and an “endless” list of other items.

Among that endless list are guns.  The ability to print a gun is not as easy as printing a word document; it requires a set of virtual blueprints.  While theoretically, anyone with the requisite knowledge could come up with these blueprints on their own, there is a movement to create a set of open files which anyone with access to the internet could download.

This open source movement is being spearheaded by C. Rutledge Wilson, a 2L at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin.  Along with several other like-minded individuals, Wilson founded Defense Distributed, which created the Wiki Weapon project.  The goal of the Wiki Weapon project is to provide Internet users with two gun models they can download, Wiki Weapon A and Wiki Weapon B.  Wiki Weapon A is a training model, in many ways a proof of the concept that a gun can be printed.  Wiki Weapon B is supposed to be a fully functional firearm, printed from home.

A third manufacturing process suggested by Defense Distributed is to simply print the lower receiver of the gun, specifically for the AR-15.  As Defense Distributed points out, only the lower receiver is regulated, so if one prints this part, they can buy all the rest of the parts for the AR-15 off the shelf.  The AR-15 was first built by ArmaLite as a selective fire assault rifle for the United States armed forces.  A traditionally manufactured AR-15 is made of aluminum alloys and synthetic material, and it is unclear how durable a receiver from a 3D printer would be.

The idea that anyone with an internet connection and a 3D printer could manufacture at-will a variety of guns, up to military grade assault weapons, raises a plethora of legal and moral concerns.  There is no consensus on whether or not it is legal for someone to manufacture guns in this method. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, citing 18 U.S.C. 922(o) and (r), 26 U.S.C. 5822, 27 CFR 478.39, 479.62 and 479.105 on their website:

With certain exceptions a firearm may be made by a non-licensee provided it is not for sale and the maker is not prohibited from possessing firearms.  However, a person is prohibited from assembling a non-sporting semi-automatic rifle or non-sporting shotgun from imported parts.  In addition, the making of an NFA firearm requires a tax payment and approval by ATF.  An application to make a machine gun will not be approved unless documentation is submitted showing that the firearm is being made for a Federal or State agency.

This appears to make production of the AR-15 lower receiver illegal if the AR-15 were a non-sporting semi-automatic rifle.  At least one manufacturer of 3D printers, Stratasys, agrees.. The company repossessed the printer leased by Defense Distributed, and in a letter to Defense Distributed stated that it was Strartasys’s policy not to knowingly assist in the illegal manufactory of firearms.

In addition to the current legal status, there are significant questions to be answered concerning what the law should be for this new technology.  People have always had the ability to make their own guns, but 3D printers still constitute a paradigm shift because no real knowledge, effort, or skill is required—only the Internet and a printer.

There is some concern that allowing anyone to print guns would lead to increased gun violence.  Wilson believes such a worry mischaracterizes the issue, as, “Historical and material realities being what they are, organized crime will not soon be interested in plastic zip guns when they can get [Department of Defense] black rifles from their local [Police Department] or double agent on demand.”  Wilson’s statement can easily be reflected in the controversy surrounding the Fast and Furious tragedy still unfolding.

While the image of Picard ordering a gun that materializes has not been fully realized, prudent lawmakers should address this issue before the technology becomes even more widespread.  Whether lawmakers choose to sanction or prohibit the printing of guns is a matter for public debate, but this technology will inevitability develop further and North Carolina should decide its course now.



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About Harry Lorello, Former Senior Staff Writer (7 Articles)
Harry graduated from Campbell Law in 2013. He attended Guilford College, graduating in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts in History and Education. During both 1L and 2L summers, Harry interned for the North Carolina Department of Justice Property Control Section, where he worked on issues ranging from property to employment law. During his 2L year, Harry worked as a clerk for the Lanier Law Group, which focuses on workers' compensation.
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