By Vicky A. Bufano
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
Today, 3D printers are completely changing how all kinds of objects are manufactured and developed, from artificial body parts to household items. 3D printers can even create firearms and that has created a national controversy.
Currently, plans outlining how to make 3D guns are legal and widely available on the Internet. Making a gun on a 3D printer is legal as well. However, recent U.S. government actions may change all that.
3D-Printed Gun Designs First Appeared in 2013
To give a brief background, Cody Wilson, the founder of Texas private defense company Defense Distributed, posted designs online for a 3D-printed handgun in 2013. The gun was a single-shot pistol made of plastic.
The State Department ordered Wilson to remove the plans because Wilson’s post violated the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Someone in a country to which the United States does not sell weapons could download the plans. Wilson agreed to delete the plans, even though they had already been downloaded countless times.
In 2015, Wilson sued the federal government, stating that the restriction of his plans violated his First Amendment free speech rights. Wilson won his case and was allowed to continue publishing his gun plans online. However, he voluntarily agreed to temporarily pull the plans in a few states, including Pennsylvania.
A question that looms is: Will these plans be permanently allowed on the Internet? If so, what are the legal ramifications in this area of advancing technology?
How Does a 3D Printer Work?
The 3D printing process uses a method called Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), where a digital file of an image is sliced into hundreds of thin layers. The 3D printer uses a type of thermoplastic called Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) to make solid objects. Many household products are made from this plastic, such as remote control devices, smartphone cases and even Lego bricks.
When the plastic is heated, it becomes moldable. The printer then places the slices in layers, one on top of the other, until it constructs an exact solid replica of the digital file. The result is a complete physical copy of the digital image — in this case, a gun.
The size and complexity of the digital file determines the time it takes to print it out, from a few hours to several days. Any user, even a person without specific skills or knowledge, can follow the plans for ready-made designs, just like the ones Wilson has posted online.
Does a 3D Printed Gun Actually Work?
The technology for 3D printing has been around since the 1980s, but advancements in technology have lowered the price of 3D printers and made them available to the general public. In the process, 3D printing has created the capability to make a fully functioning firearm, but not without some challenges.
Because the 3D printer uses liquified plastic, it is not able to formulate complex internal mechanisms that would be needed for a functional firearm. As an alternative, individual components of the firearm would need to be printed separately and assembled later.
Also, the plastic used to create a 3D-firearm cannot withstand high heat levels. While ABS is durable, the plastic will break into pieces and fail to function when it is put under extreme heat. When a bullet is fired from a 3D printed plastic gun, for example, the heat generated to expel the bullet can destroy the firearm and possibly injure the user.
When Wilson released his video on Defense Distributed’s website, it showed the successful test of a 3D-printed handgun made completely of plastic materials with the exception of a metal firing pin. While the firearm did work, it completely broke apart after firing only a handful of times.
Since 2013, other groups have been able to advance the technology and durability of 3D-printed guns. In November 2014, a machinist in Pennsylvania provided plans for a 3D-printed gun that could fire multiple rounds without cracking or deforming. Currently, 3D guns have been tested and fired up to 15 shots before breaking apart.
Are 3D-Printed Guns Legal?
According to federal law, any person or business engaging in the sale of a firearm must be licensed. The typical finished firearm has a unique serial number, which is engraved in several places on the gun, that must be registered with the government. Also, gun laws require that any person buying a firearm must meet certain checks, such as a criminal background or mental health check, before the purchase can be completed.
But a 3D-printed gun requires no background check, no mental health disclosures and no age restrictions. It is unregulated and unrestricted access to gun ownership. Furthermore, a 3D-printed gun is virtually untraceable and contains no serial number. So is creating 3D-printed guns legal? Wilson believes it is.
You may be surprised to learn that Americans have been building firearms for centuries. It is entirely legal in America for a person to construct a fully functional gun if it is for personal use.
There are no licensing or registration requirements unless the person sells or gives away the homemade gun. That includes 3D-printed guns.
Wilson argues that his First Amendment free speech rights are being violated because posting 3-D gun printing plans on the Internet is an exercise of free speech. He argues that there are hundreds of plans on how to make a gun that are not being removed from the Internet. Wilson calls this unconstitutional censorship of his free speech rights.
In addition to First Amendment concerns, gun rights supporters also cite the Second Amendment. By restricting plans to make 3D-printed guns, they say, the government is denying citizens their Second Amendment right to keep and bear guns.
The Internet Has Hundreds of Gun-Making Websites
There are currently hundreds of websites and downloadable plans for making guns at home. WikiHow, for instance, has plans for how to make a pipe gun. It includes the parts, the steps, all the assembly instructions and pictures that explain in detail how to build the weapon.
Other websites have instructions for making Glock handguns, AR-15s and shotguns. There are even inexpensive kits you can buy online to build your own firearm at home.
What Regulations Are Needed for 3D-Printed Guns?
Efforts to regulate this area of technology have been unsuccessful. For example, Congress extended the Undetectable Firearms Act in 2013. This law makes it illegal to have or make any firearm that is not detectable by a metal detector. That would include plastic-only, 3D-printed firearms.
To be legal, an all-plastic, 3D-printed firearm must be modified with a metal plate built into the body of the weapon for electronic detection purposes. But since most of these guns are printed without government oversight, there are no regulations or checks to ensure that this law is followed.
State and local governments can pass legislation without having to wait for the federal government to act. States like New York, for instance, have proposed legislation requiring a person making a 3D-printed gun to be a licensed gunsmith as well as requiring possessors of 3D-printed guns to register them with the state.
Furthermore, New York and Washington, D.C., have proposed criminalizing possession of a 3D-printed firearm. Unfortunately, none of these proposed laws has ever become law.
Toward the end of 2013, however, Philadelphia became the first city to make it illegal to own or make a 3D-printed gun.
No Easy Answers on What to Do about 3D-Printed Guns
What regulations could be effective as well as implemented across the board? Answers do not come easily.
The reality is that firearms, including 3D-printed ones, are deadly and dangerous weapons with the power to injure, maim and kill. With technological advances, 3D-printed guns will certainly change the way companies and individuals design, manufacture and distribute guns.
Addressing these gun issues and their constitutionality should be a top priority. Lawmakers need to review all available facts and information and then work toward the passage of reasonable gun laws that meet the needs of all citizens.
About the Author
Vicky Bufano is a part-time instructor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. She holds a B.S. in legal studies from the University of Central Florida and a J.D. in law from Gonzaga University. In addition, Bufano is a lawyer in Florida and a member of the Washington State Bar Association.