3D printing (also called "additive manufacturing") has been used to create medical equipment, prosthetics, architectural models, car parts, and even sustainable clothing lines. The possibilities for innovation are endless, but so are the risks that the technology will be misused as it becomes increasingly accessible and affordable.
In 2013, Cody Wilson created the world's first 3D-printed gun, sparking an ongoing legal debate about whether and how to regulate 3D-printed guns.
Nearly all firearms in the United States are made in factories and sold by gun dealers who must perform background checks and maintain records of all gun sales. 3D-printed guns are different. 3D-printed guns can potentially be made by anyone with a decent 3D printer and access to the internet. Some 3D-printed guns are made almost entirely of plastic on a 3D printer. Others require additional components, which are often made of metal or ceramic.
To create an object with a 3D printer, the user creates a design with CAD or animation modeling software. The software creates a blueprint of the desired object and divides the object into digital cross-sections. A user without specialized skills or software expertise can obtain ready-made designs and digital schematics from third-party sources. Regulators have blocked companies from selling or sharing the files required to print guns several times, but blueprints are still widely available online.
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 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. By contrast, traditional manufacturing constructs an object by cutting material into a specified shape and often piecing various parts together to form the object.
Ghost guns are homemade guns that bypass gun purchasing laws and regulations. 3-D printed firearms are a type of ghost gun—they have no serial number and can't be traced by law enforcement. Other ghost guns are assembled from kits sold online or at gun shows. Ghost gun kits contain all of the necessary parts to build a firearm at home and sometimes even the necessary equipment.
According to USA Today, the number of ghost guns recovered by law enforcement agencies has increased by over 1,000% between 2017 and 2021. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice recovered 25,785 ghost guns in domestic seizures, as well as 2,453 through international operations.
No federal law specifically prohibits an individual from making or possessing a 3D-printed gun. Homemade guns (also called "privately made firearms") are typically legal if they are made for personal use and the person making the gun isn't prohibited from possessing firearms.
But, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), 3D-printed guns have to be "detectable" by security screening equipment as required by the Gun Control Act (GCA).
Privately made guns, including a 3D-printed gun, don't have to be registered or have serial numbers unless state or local law requires registration.
More federal regulation of 3D-printed guns may be on the horizon. In July 2023, Senator Gillibrand (New York) introduced the "3D Printed Gun Safety Act." The proposed federal law would ban the online distribution of blueprints for 3D-printed firearms.
(18 U.S.C. § § 922(d), 922(p) (2023).
In the absence of comprehensive federal regulation, state and local governments can regulate 3D-printed guns as long as the regulations don't conflict with federal law.
According to Everytown Research and Policy, at least four states—Delaware, Hawaii, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—have entirely banned the 3D printing of guns.
Other states, like California, require 3D-printed guns to, be serialized and detectable.
Gun control—restrictions aimed at controlling the use of firearms—always inspire heated debate in the United States and 3D-printed guns measures are no exception. Here are some of the most common arguments for and against regulations.
3D-printed guns, like all ghost guns, are unserialized and untraceable firearms that can be assembled at home. You don't have to pass a background check to download blueprints or purchase component parts, which makes 3D-printed guns attractive to people who would otherwise be prohibited from purchasing guns, like gang members, felons, and teenagers.
Advocates for regulation, argue that restrictions on 3D-printed guns are necessary to reduce the epidemic of firearm violence.
Policymakers have also expressed concern about the threat 3D-printed guns present to national security. Allowing anyone in the world access to blueprints to create an undetectable weapon that can potentially bypass airport security could be harmful to Americans.
Opponents of gun control argue that attempts to regulate 3D-printed firearms may suppress 3D-printing technology in general, which could result in negative long-reaching effects on 3D innovation. They point to the positive uses of 3D-printing technology, such as the potential for extraordinary feats of engineering, like bio-printing human body parts for medical purposes.
They also argue that safety concerns about 3D-printed guns are overblown and that banning or regulating 3D-printed guns infringes on the Second Amendment rights of American citizens to make their own guns.
The laws regulating 3D-printed guns are evolving along with the technology and vary from state to state. If you're facing a charge for unlawful gun possession, or want to know whether you're allowed to lawfully possess a particular kind of gun, you should talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer in your area. Violations of gun laws can result in years in prison. An experienced attorney can advise you about your rights and ensure you're protected.