Future Tense

The Newtown Shooting Demonstrates the Need To Outlaw DIY 3-D Printed Guns. Now.

A demonstration of Defense Distributed’s partially 3-D printed AR-15 assault rifle.

Still from YouTube.

In early October, Will Oremus wrote in Future Tense about Defense Distributed, a Texas-based collective developing the first open-source, completely 3-D printed gun. For a few weeks, Wiki Weapon sparked intense, but largely hypothetical, debate.

In the aftermath of the Newton massacre last Friday, that is particularly frightening, considering the Bushmaster AR-15 is one of the guns Adam Lanza had in his arsenal. Now, what was primarily a debate among legislators and the alarmed 3-D printing community is sure to demand public attention.

On Dec. 2, the company released a YouTube video demonstrating a partially 3-D printed AR-15 assault rifle. Less than a week later, Rep. Steve Israel of New York held a press conference calling for the renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which expires in December 2013. The act essentially makes it unlawful to “manufacture, sell, ship, deliver, possess” any firearm that 1) can’t be discovered by standard metal detectors and doesn’t contain at least 3.7 ounces of stainless steel after detachment of the gun’s grips, stocks, and magazines; and 2) has major components that X-ray machines can’t accurately identify as gun parts. That, it seems, would cover 3-D printed gun parts, which are made of plastic.

As Constance Emerson Crooker writes in her book Gun Control and Gun Rights, the act was originally introduced in reaction to the partially plastic Glock 17 pistol. The idea was to keep fully plastic “terrorist weapons” off of airplanes. As Rich Brown of CNET points out, though, there is no evidence that America has a plastic gun problem. Even now, fully plastic weapons don’t exist. Still, the law has been renewed multiple times, most recently in 2003, and with the advent of 3-D printing, it may be more important than ever.  At his press conference, Israel said, “It is just a matter of time before these three-dimensional printers will be able to replicate an entire gun.”

The cost of quality 3-D printers is falling even as their ability to produce detailed, high-quality, functional products is improving dramatically. Though Defense Distributed’s gun failed after six rounds during the YouTube demonstration, they’ve already begun improvements on the next model. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility for gun enthusiasts to fabricate functional plastic guns or gun parts en masse in the not so far future. The military, for one, is looking into 3-D printing for the battlefield, though not weapons—yet.

It would be difficult to prosecute organizations like Defense Distributed for any wrongdoing under the act’s current language. The weapon itself might be illegal, but the plans are not. A spokesman for Rep. Israel told me, “There is nothing in the legislation about banning something like blueprints or anything of the sort. It puts no restriction on 3-D printers.” Because of this, as a Defense Distributed spokesman told CNET’s Brown, the company has split itself into two entities: one that publishes intellectual property (think instructions and blueprints) on the Internet, and a sister organization that has applied, perhaps fruitlessly, to become an authorized firearms manufacturer. By simply virally spreading 3-D printable gun designs, companies like Defense Distributed can continue its sketchy plans to give every citizen access to a firearm.

However, Defense Distributed cannot succeed in its mission without the goodwill of government, industry, and perhaps most importantly users—and there’s not much support right now for making guns more accessible. In addition to government scrutiny, the group faces ostracization in the 3-D printing world. For instance, Stratasys Inc., the vendor that created Defense Distributed’s first 3-D printers, seized the machines, as its terms of service state that its products couldn’t be used for illegal activity. Defensive Distributed used the Stratasys Inc. 3-D printer to fabricate the lower receiver of an AR-15 rifle. Legally, the lower receiver is considered the firearm—that’s the part that is serialized and registered.

In what could be the biggest blow to the project, Thingiverse, the most popular website for the sharing and remixing of 3-D designs, has taken down plans the pistol and assault rifle plans that Defense Distributed advertises on its website. In a statement, Makerbot Industries, which owns Thingiverse, said users agree not to upload and transmit content that “promotes illegal activities or contributes to the creation of weapons, illegal materials or is otherwise objectionable.”

Considering the current climate surrounding gun control, I imagine the Undetectable Firearms Act has a good chance of being renewed, and perhaps new language specific to 3-D printed guns will further future proof the legislation. This ongoing saga has rocked an otherwise transparent, open 3-D printing culture, demonstrating the complications in bringing new technologies from their early adopters to the population at large.