3-D printed guns are probably coming whether you like it or not

Last month the federal government reached a settlement with Cody Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed. Wilson was among the first to use 3-D printing technology to produce a working handgun back in 2013, but he was charged with a violation of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) for uploading his designs to a file-sharing website. After fighting it out in court for more than four years, the government gave up, agreed to pay some $40K for Wilson’s legal fees and allow him to upload all of his design files for distribution. He plans to do so on August 1st.


This has had gun control groups in an uproar, but as the deadline approaches there doesn’t seem to be much they can do about it. (Washington Post)

After a multiyear legal battle, the federal government last month entered into a settlement with Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson, permitting him to publish his arsenal of firearm blueprints online. He intends to do so on Aug. 1. Lawmakers’ 11th-hour efforts have done nothing to halt his plans, and on Friday a federal judge denied a motion for an emergency injunction brought forward by a trio of gun-control groups.

[Fred] Guttenberg, who has become a powerful voice against gun violence since his 14-year-old daughter was killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., told The Washington Post he was dismayed by his visit to the Hill. Five weeks have passed since the settlement was signed, yet only a handful of senators were aware of it, he said, adding that not a single House member knew either.

“I don’t know how we got to this place and no one was paying attention,” he lamented. “This is the safety of this country and its citizens who are now at risk in their offices, in courthouses and on airplanes.”

The WaPo editorial board has published their own indictment of the settlement and the upcoming release, describing how so-called “ghost guns” will only aid felons, those with mental illness, domestic abusers or possible terrorists.

Allow me to start with a confession. I’m probably one of the more strident defenders of Second Amendment rights you’re likely to run into (regular readers already know this) and even I get a little squeamish over the idea of 3-D printed guns. We’ve come a long way in terms of the industrial use of plastics, but plastic is still no match for metal. I always find myself wondering if one of these 3-D guns is just going to blow up the next time you fire a round. And yes, the potential they hold in terms of making life much easier for criminals and terrorists is obviously unsettling.


But we also need to be realistic about this. From the legal perspective, many of the complaints being raised concern the fact that people will be able to print guns with no serial numbers. While we have a patchwork of state laws covering this question in various ways, the fact is that there is no federal law against manufacturing a gun for your own personal use and not having a serial number on it. But that’s only if it’s being made for your own personal use, not for sale or distribution. This does not, however, apply to guns which “cannot be detected by metal detectors or x-ray machines.” The BATFE has confirmed this.

Does an individual need a license to make a firearm for personal use?

No, a license is not required to make a firearm solely for personal use. However, a license is required to manufacture firearms for sale or distribution. The law prohibits a person from assembling a non–sporting semiautomatic rifle or shotgun from 10 or more imported parts, as well as firearms that cannot be detected by metal detectors or x–ray machines. In addition, the making of an NFA firearm requires a tax payment and advance approval by ATF.

[18 U.S.C. 922(o), (p) and (r); 26 U.S.C. 5822; 27 CFR 478.39, 479.62 and 479.105]

So it appears that, at least in theory, the act of using a 3-D printer to create a functional firearm made of plastic, even for personal use, is against existing federal law. But is it illegal to create a computer-generated design which someone with a printer could use to produce such a firearm? That once again reminds me of the bricks of dehydrated grape juice they used to sell during prohibition. They came with a warning to not mix the brick with a specific amount of water and yeast or, “an illegal alcoholic beverage may result.”


In much the same way, a digital design isn’t an illegal product. But in this case, it obviously has no purpose other than creating an illegal product. Still, the code is information, not an actual firearm. Can we ban the release of information? Well… yes. We’ve been doing it for years. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 charges the Department of Energy with regulating “restricted data” regarding the design of nuclear weapons. But when it comes to guns, we apparently don’t have any such restrictions in place yet.

The reason there’s a panic going on over this, at least as put forward by gun control groups, is that once the designs are released on August 1st, “the genie is out of the bottle and you can’t put it back in.” That much is true for the specific designs that Cody Wilson has, but the fact is that the genie has been out of that bottle for at least five years. Do you really think Wilson is some sort of unique genius and the only person who could think of this? There are already 3-D gun printing designs circulating on the dark web and in other places as well. All we’ll accomplish by passing a ban on such designs now is preventing those who tend to obey the law from getting hold of them. But the information is already out there and anyone who can afford a good 3-D printer can already do this.

I have zero interest in having one of these guns and I will go so far as to agree with the critics who say they represent a significant challenge for law enforcement when they fall into the hands of criminals and terrorists. But we live in the internet era and I honestly don’t have any suggestions as to what to do about it.


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David Strom 6:31 PM on November 27, 2023