The Plastic Pistol With 3D Printing

When it comes to gun regulation in the US, there is often a lot of controversy on the subject, but most agree that the ability to create unregulated, untraceable firearms should not be granted to certain people. But at the time of writing this, that ability has not only been implemented, but downloaded by at least 100,000 people.

3D printing technology, like any technology, brings lots of people the ability to do things they never could before, creating a new platform from which society can build the foundations for further technologies. But 3D printing is especially generic, allowing people to create physical objects from small sculptures to complex machine parts, all using the same filaments. The applications made available by this technology could serve as a huge benefit to society, but of course come with some drawbacks.

A functionally-proven design file for a fully 3D-printed handgun called “The Liberator” was released to the public in 2016 by a company aimed at defending Second Amendment rights called Defense Distributed, and in just two days the file was downloaded by approximately 100,000 people (Defense, 2017). The file was taken down shortly after being uploaded, however, by the United States Department of State under the Arms Export Control Act. Defense Distributed tried to defend the publication of the file, and went to court.

The Second Amendment rights company argued that the issue of publication was actually a violation of First Amendment rights in this case, as the code contained in the file is considered speech, and regulation of the file would be an infringement on free speech. Ultimately, the 5th circuit court declined this motion: “Judge Pitman found [Defense Distributed] failed to show that the harms of denying the injunction would outweigh those of granting it” (Defense, 2017). In this case, Judge Pitman found it necessary to regulate files for 3D-printable guns, on the grounds that the harm brought to the public by permitting people to freely download such files outweighs the harm brought to Defense Distributed due to regulation. Despite the court’s order, the file is still available through online sources like The Pirate Bay.

While the idea of 3D printed guns strikes fear into the hearts of many people, some argue that “regulating 3D printing to prevent gun printing would be both counterproductive and ineffective” (Greenberg, 2013). After all, people have been manufacturing their own versions of firearms since before the era of 3D printers. Computer-controlled milling machines were able to carve parts of guns out of metal, and those parts would hold up a lot better than the plastic filaments used in today’s 3D printers. Enforcing regulation of 3D printed files based on the nature of the printed object also brings up a lot of legal gray area. It might be difficult to determine whether a 3D-printed object is a gun barrel, or just a cylinder created for another purpose. Legislation around these issues could open the doors to bogus lawsuits, and serve as a detriment to the progress of 3D printing technology.

Ultimately, 3D printing technology is already well-integrated into our society, and people will be able to use it to do whatever they want, regardless of regulation. Across the US, it is often possible to send a *.stl file to your local library, and they will print the object on the file for you, allowing you to pick it up for about the price of the filaments used to print it. The ability to 3D print firearms is already available and practiced, and the files already exist redundantly across the internet through a variety of sources. 3D printers are difficult to regulate, and doing so could be to the detriment of society, so the only hope in regulating 3D guns is in regulating the print files. In the end, this would be a lot like prosecuting someone for pirating an episode of a TV show, and may be infeasible all together.

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