From creating a spare screw for a household project, to developing a sophisticated piece of weaponry, a 3D printer has the capability of revolutionizing the way we create and distribute objects—including firearms. The basic science behind 3D printing has existed since the mid-1980s. However, rapid technological advancements now afford virtually endless possibilities. While printing 3D guns is perfectly legal under the current state of the law (with specific nuances described below), this may not hold true for much longer.
A 3D printer makes a solid, three dimensional object from a digital file. Amazing and innovative designs can be made using a 3D printer from the comfort of a person’s own home.
To create an object with a 3D printer, the user creates a design with computer aided design (CAD) or animation modeling software. The software creates a blueprint of the desired object and divides the object into digital cross-sections, so that the printer can build the object. A user without specialized skills or software can purchase and download ready-made designs and digital schematics from third-party sources.
The printer makes the object by using an “additive process.” An additive process creates a three-dimensional object by laying down successive layers of material, which may be be plastic, rubber, paper, polyurethane, or even metal—the way you’d build a brick wall from the ground up. Using the design created by the software, the printer transfers material by making multiple passes over a platform, depositing layer on top of layer in order to make the finished product. This is in contrast to traditional manufacturing, which constructs an object by cutting material into a specified shape.
For years, many believed that a working 3D printed firearm existed only in theory. But in May 2013, Cody Wilson, founder of the non-profit group Defense Distributed, released on the group’s website video footage of a successful test shoot, as well as the digital design for the first functional 3D printed handgun. Called the “Liberator,” Wilson’s operational single shot pistol was made entirely of plastic materials (save for a metal nail inserted as the firing pin).
Days after the Liberator’s release, the federal government ordered Wilson to remove his digital files. Relying on The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), the State Department ordered the files removed because uploading the design to the internet and allowing it to be downloaded abroad potentially violated international export controls. Wilson complied, but not before the plans had been downloaded over 100,000 times. Another website also published the digital schematics for the Liberator (where they are currently still available).
Since the debut of the Liberator, a number of other operational firearms made from 3D printers have emerged. Increasing in sophistication, the designs attempt to make stronger and more durable weaponry. For example, in November of 2013, the group Solid Concepts released a handgun made of 3D printed metal parts (making the gun better equipped to engage in repeat fire). As recently as November 2014, a machinist from Pennsylvania released plans for a plastic 3D printed firearm with a bullet chamber designed to withstand multiple rounds of firing without cracking or deforming. While far from perfect technology at the present, these examples offer a glimmer of what might exist in the future—durable and practical 3D printed firearms (perhaps even semi-automatic ones).
Federal law requires that a person or business engaged in the sale of firearms be licensed. A finished firearm bears a unique serial number and must be registered with local authorities. Additionally, a person buying a firearm must meet certain requirements (for example, not be a convicted felon) and submit to a background check before purchase. However, it is perfectly legal to make and own a firearm as long as it is intended for personal use only and the user does not intend to sell it. An individual need not obtain a license to make a firearm, nor must the gun be registered. (18 U.S.C., Chapter 44; § 922 (d).) This includes firearms created with 3D printers.
For more information on the legality of homemade guns, including those made by a 3D printer, see Homemade Guns: Are They Legal? Must They Be Registered?
Efforts to impose additional regulation and restrictions on 3D printed firearms have been unsuccessful for the most part. At the end of 2013, Congress did extend the existing Undetectable Firearms Act for an additional ten years, which makes illegal any firearm that cannot be detected by a metal detector. This means that a plastic-only 3D printed firearm must also have a metal plate inserted into the printed body. However, additional proposed legislation that would have effectively banned 3D printed guns in their entirety failed to pass the House and no change to the existing law was implemented.
Only a few state and local governments have attempted to implement their own 3D printed gun regulations and provisions. In 2013, New York City introduced legislation that would have required an individual making a 3D printed gun to be a licensed gunsmith, and those possessing 3D printed guns to register them after taking possession. Both New York State and Washington DC attempted to criminalize the possession of 3D printed firearms in their entirety. However, none of these measures have been enacted.
In November 2013, Philadelphia became the first U.S. city to ban making or owning 3D printed guns. Local lawmakers acknowledged they did not know of any such weapons to actually exist in the city and the move was purely pre-emptive.
In late 2014, the California legislature attempted to effectively ban 3D printed guns by passing legislation requiring that homemade guns be subjected to the same standards as purchased guns—requiring a background check for possession, a stamped serial number, and registration upon completion. In order to receive a serial number, a self-made firearm would have to include permanent and undetachable metal components. After passing both the state House and Senate however, the legislation was vetoed by California’s governor.
The issue has gained attention internationally as well. The United Kingdom banned all unregistered firearms created by 3D printers. Likewise, it is illegal in Japan to develop or produce a firearm made from a 3D printer. In October 2014, a Japanese man became the first person sentenced to prison (a term of two years) for downloading and printing five plastic guns.
There are no easy answers with regard to how heavily 3D printed firearms should be regulated. On the one hand, these are deadly weapons with the great potential to reshape the way individuals design and develop firearms, even if only for their own use. Because they do not bear serial numbers they are impossible to keep track of, and a 3D printed gun used in a crime cannot be traced. Although the law requires metal to be inserted into the weapon, because there is no oversight it cannot be determined if individuals are complying with the regulation. On the other hand, making a 3D gun remains complicated and expensive and the resulting weapon is still relatively inefficient (see below for details).
Because they are not required to be licensed or registered, it is impossible to know exactly how many 3D printed guns are in circulation. However, a safe guess is “not very many.” That is because, despite recent innovations in printing technology, 3D printed guns are still not that easy to make. Although some digital blueprints may be obtained online (so a user need not have sophisticated design skills), a 3D printer capable of building a firearm is still expensive.
While 3D printers are commercially available for several hundred dollars, not every printer is capable of producing a firearm, much less one that actually works. The Liberator was printed on a machine costing approximately $8,000, and printers with superior capabilities range from that to upwards of $100,000. The printing process is lengthy, requiring multiple hours (or even days) for a finished product.
Additionally, a 3D printed gun is a crude weapon—it cannot withstand repeated firing, is unpredictable, and has limited accuracy. While any functional firearm certainly has the capability of causing death or great bodily harm, 3D printing is unlikely to be the source of choice for those looking to cheaply and quickly procure firearms, either to use personally or distribute illegally.
Firearms are but a small example of what 3D printers are capable of producing. 3D printing can be used to create objects for both personal and manufacturing use, but the technology also holds promise for extraordinary feats of engineering, like bioprinting human parts for medical purposes and other innovations in fields such as electronics, transportation, and space exploration.
However, it is the gun issue that receives the bulk of negative media attention regarding 3D printing technology. This kind of publicity has caused some manufacturers to restrict access to their products in some cases. For example, when a printer manufacturer learned the group Defense Distributed planned to use its leased 3D printer to develop a perfectly legal homemade handgun, the lease was terminated and the printer seized (the printer was ultimately returned once the group obtained a firearms license). If these manufacturers restrict access to individuals or groups that invite controversy, or even stymie development of the technology itself in order to protect their legal and financial interests, it could have a devastating impact on other industries that have so much to gain from 3D printing.
Additionally, at its core, 3D printing relies on unparalleled development in intellectual property and design. Advancements using open-source, open-access information is the hallmark of technological development and progress in this country. Restricting or outright banning certain objects made with 3D printers has the potential to have long-reaching implications on innovation.
Because the technology is changing so rapidly, it is difficult to know where the law must go in order to keep the public safe, while at the same time encouraging and protecting innovation.