3D printed gun poses awkward regulatory questions

The Liberator gun

The Liberator gun

The world is finally waking up to the promises and threats of 3D printing, when a group of people calling themselves Defense Distributed published the plans online to make a 3D printed gun make almost entirely out of plastic, and posted a video of the gun being fired.

3D printing is set to be one of the biggest technical revolutions the world has ever seen, comparable only with the Internet in recent years. At the moment 3D printers are either expensive, slow, or have material limitations, but the potential is mind-blowing, as this video of a 3D printed wrench with movable parts shows. As prices start dropping, materials start getting better, and the technology becomes more widespread, we will be able to see an explosion of everyday items that can be printed.

3D printed itself opens up interesting legal questions, some of which are explored in this trail-blazing paper by Simon Bradshaw published in SCRIPTed. What seems certain is that we will have to rethink some areas of law. For example, I believe that design law, the Cinderella of IP rights, is about to get a serious boost akin to that received by copyright law because of the Internet. When every person with a scanner and a printer can reproduce an item we will certainly encounter unexplored conflicts. Car parts, trainer soles, sculptures, mobile phone covers… the possibilities are intriguing.

But the 3D printed gun has opened up an entirely new type of legal questions, particularly about Internet regulation. Defense Distributed set out to build a 3D weapon because they could. The motivations of the group, and particularly of their front-man, Cody Wilson, seem to be mostly political. There is a strong libertarian seam running through many of the interviews given by Wilson, there seems to be a direct attack on the power of government to control citizens. There is also a very US-centric view of the world in the project. Guns are a right that should not be denied to people. Guns are freedom… etc. Defense Distributed’s website offers Milton’s Areopagitica as one of the foundational documents explaining the reasons why there is a need for a 3D printed gun. This is a strange document to cite, freedom of speech is one thing, freedom to own a gun is an entirely different affair.

The danger of an easily available and relatively affordable undetectable gun is clear. I wonder if the first time a plastic gun is used to hijack a plane the justifications of freedom as the highest human value will stand to scrutiny.

Governments recognise the danger, and that is why the US acted quickly to remove the plans from Defense Distributed’s website. But the damage was already done, the design is already out in the open and can be easily found in most torrent sites (I won’t provide links, but a simple search should produce hundreds of torrent files carrying the printing instructions). Cody Wilson has managed some of his intended effects, to show the difficulty of removing information from the Internet.

So the 3D printed gun lies at the heart of the debates about Internet regulation from the last few years. Here is a technology that could be tremendously dangerous, but it is nigh impossible to stop. In the end, the benefits of 3D printing are to great to ban the entire technology. It may be possible to enact laws that ban the production of 3D printed weapons, but these will likely be as easily circumvented as file-sharing practices.

I have to admit that I have no answers to the conundrum presented by 3D printed guns. I am against this use of the technology. Thankfully, initial reports indicate that the Liberator gun is too dangerous and unreliable, but at some point someone will make a much better one. I do not think that a world where everyone is armed is a more free world. But there is no easy way to stop this technology from spreading throughout the internet, unless government make more restrictions to online environments.

In the end, a gun designed to make people more free, may bring about more stringent Internet regulation, an ironic turn of events that does not benefit anyone.

2 comments to 3D printed gun poses awkward regulatory questions

  • "Guns are a right that should not be denied to people. Guns are freedom" is NOT US centric, it is true world wide.

    "Governments recognise the danger, and that is why the US acted quickly to remove the plans from Defense Distributed’s website." What a load of crap. The only danger gov recognizes is a danger to their power of people.

    Regulating 3D printers, etc is a fools game. It's strictly feel good nonsense. I can go to the plumbing dept of any hardware store and build a gun. And frankly,I should be able to. If you have criminals you don't trust with guns, why are they on the street? No amount of laws will keep them disarmed. These types of legislation on act to treat the honest people as criminals.

    • This really is a US-centric concern, having lived in several countries with various ranges of gun-control policies, I can say without a doubt that the obsession with gun ownership is uniquely American. Nowhere else that I know of is gun ownership part of the constitution.

      I am in no way advocating for the regulation of 3D printing, but it seems clear that the 3D gun is a dangerous technology. Sure, you can build your own gun nowadays, but 3D printing makes it easier, and more importantly, would make guns undetectable.

      I lived 12 years in the UK with strict gun control, not once did I ever feel unsafe, or I felt a criminal for not being able to own a gun.

      Gun ownership is not about freedom, I don't feel less free for not being able to own a gun.

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