Why 3-D Printing Will Change the Gun Control Debate

Modern manufacturing is not something that the average American frequently has control over. Large companies have increasingly utilized overseas factories to produce a large number of everyday products for American consumption. Before the industrial revolution, the average American household was reliant on homespun goods for everyday consumption. The future of manufacturing may be more similar, however, to the past. 3D printing allows people to create complex three-dimensional models out of plastic right in their own home. The CEO of Makerbot, a company that produces 3D printers, thinks “Just as desktop printing evolved 30 years ago, today we envision 3Ddesktop printers on every desk in every . . . home. The ability to manufacture on demand, innovate and iterate new and existing products is definitely leading the next industrial revolution”.[1] This new technology is poised to change how individuals acquire even complex technical objects. Some of the most controversial things that home printers can create are firearms. Hobbyists have already created small caliber guns capable of firing multiple shots before the plastic becomes compromised. Technological advances are expected in printer and material quality and experts expect that the printers could be the next industrial revolution.[2]

Gun control is a complex political issue. Both politicians and voters have strong feelings on the subject and people fight vehemently for the ability to own firearms with as little regulations as possible. Cody Wilson founded the nonprofit digital publishing group Defense Distributed in an effort to make 3D printed guns available for everyone.[3] Defense Distributed successfully created a printable gun called the Liberator Pistol, which was distributed across the Internet. Many other hobbyists and activists have taken the Liberator Pistol plans and altered them and printed their own weapons. The most successful testing was from the Grizzly Rifle 2.0 created by a Canadian using the Liberator Pistol design as the base. It fired 14 times before breaking.[4] The creation of homemade firearms is more than theory and the chances of plastic guns being produced in the average household would change the gun control debate forever.

Recently, the State Department has asked Wilson and Defense Distributed to remove the plans for the Liberator while they determine the extent of their regulatory jurisdiction over the information.[5] The department considers the posting of the plans online to be equivalent to distributing firearms to every country without a license.[6] The successful firing of the Grizzly rifle did not occur, however, until after the plans had already been removed. The nature of the way we share information today makes it impossible for the State Department to contain distribution and current regulations do not cover the possibilities 3D printing creates. To stay current with emerging technology, the State Department needs to begin advocating for a change in regulations.

The homemade guns could, from a regulatory standpoint, be compared to other homemade weaponry. Zip guns, as defined by the California Penal Code, are:

any weapon or device that meets all of the following criteria:(a) It was not imported as a firearm by an importer…(b) It was not originally designed to be a firearm by a manufacturer…(c) No tax was paid on the weapon or device nor was an exemption from paying tax on that weapon or device granted…(d) It is made or altered to expel a projectile by the force of an explosion or other form of combustion.[7]

There are laws that already exist to punish the creation and possession of objects that fire projectiles. The problem that 3D printing creates is the ease with which the firearms are printed and distributed. The classification of 3D printed weapons as zip guns is not a permanent solution though, and thorough reform will be required.

The right to bear arms is closely guarded by many Americans, but the possibility of everyone having a box in their house that prints firearms is unlikely to go unregulated. Current manufacturers of weapons will not be pleased by the threat to their market share. The traditionally pro-regulation states will attempt to limit distribution. As 3D printing grows and changes, the law will need to change with it.

[1] Press Release, MakerBot, Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot Announces New Book “Getting Started with MakerBot”(Jan. 9, 2013), http://makerbot-blog.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Rls_BrePettis_Book.pdf.

[2] Heesun Wee, 3-D Printing booms, triggers rush for patents, NBC News Business (Aug. 15, 2013, 12:07 AM), http://www.nbcnews.com/business/3-d-printing-booms-triggers-rush-patents-6C10925578.

[3] Brian Fung, Why Cody Wilson, the 3D-printed gun maker, thinks 3D printing might not take off, The Washington Post (Aug. 6, 2013, 8:44 AM), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2013/08/06/why-cody-wilson-the-3d-printed-gun-maker-thinks-3d-printing-might-not-take-off/.

[4] Jeremy A. Kaplan, As 3D-printed rifles get real, are changes to gun-control laws coming? Fox News (Aug 9, 2013), http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2013/08/09/as-3d-printed-rifles-get-real-are-changes-to-gun-laws-coming/.

[5] Fung, supra, note 3.

[6] Id.

[7] Cal. Penal Code § 17360 (West 2012).


Author: Frank Stefanelli

Frank is an Associate Editor for the Rutgers Computer &Technology Law Journal. He graduated from Ramapo College of New Jersey in 2012 with a degree in law and Society. He spent most of his time there as a leader in Greek Life. He still helps as an Alumni Advisor to his undergraduate brothers there. Frank has interned for the Honorable Thomas Vena in Essex County and currently clerks in the Law Offices of Sean McGovern here in Newark. He has a general interest in sports law and corporate law. Frank enjoys staying active and participates in local intermural softball leagues. He also spends his free time volunteering as a coach for youth football and wrestling teams in his home town of Long Valley.

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