Last Week in Tech Law and Policy, Vol. 20: Regulating 3D-Printed Firearms

(by Ellis Dobkin, Colorado Law 2L)

Many of our discussions deal with the struggles of government regulation in the Internet age. This week’s blog post focuses on the issues that 3D-printed firearms pose and the problems with potential regulation.

The “Wiki Weapon”

3D printing, the layman’s term for additive manufacturing, is a process where a device creates objects from a digital blueprint by layering micrometer-thin layers of plastic on top of each other. 3D printers are now available to consumers and can cost less than $1,000.

It is easy to imagine the benefits of having access to such technology. 3D printers can facilitate innovation by allowing anyone to create a prototype of their invention from home, minimize supply chain costs by allowing business to make components as needed, and even reduce food’s future environmental footprint. The possibilities are endless.

But these possibilities don’t come for free. Just as 3D printers can print harmless toys, they also have the potential to print a gun entirely from plastic. Cody Wilson, founder/director of Defense Distributed, created the Liberator, a plastic pistol that can fire at least one small caliber bullet, and has since released blueprints for its design online. Wilson also published the blueprints to 3-D print the most regulated component of the AR-15 assault rifle, the lower receiver. Though the materials nesed to 3-D print the lower receiver could withstand firing a few hundred rounds, Wilson went on to create a microwave-sized metal milling machine called the Ghost Gunner that is set to go on sale at the affordable price of $1,500. This machine manufactures a more durable lower receiver entirely out of metal. Mill your own lower receiver at home and you can order the rest of the parts from online gun shops, creating a semi-automatic weapon with no serial number, obtained with no background check, no waiting period or other regulatory hurdles (see ATF FAQ #9).

How might the government regulate printing guns in a microwave-sized 3D printer?

Senator Leland Yee (D-Calif.) proposed the idea of laws that would track the 3D printers themselves as well as people with access to them, addressing the implementation issues of background checks, mandatory serial numbers and a registration process.

Another approach might be to amend the Undetectable Firearms Act, passed in 1988, to restrict the manufacture, possession, and transfer of firearms with less than 3.7 ounces of metal content, to include a complete ban on 3D-printed firearms.

In 2013, the State Department ordered Cody Wilson of to remove the online plans he posted for a plastic gun. This year, the State Department proposed a rule to revise the International Traffic in Arms rules to include electronic transmission of technical data related to firearm manufacturing, apparently in response to blueprints of 3D-printed guns posted online over the past few years.

Opponents of these measures argue that restricting 3D-printed guns violates Second Amendment rights while trying to censor the blueprints from the Internet infringes on the First Amendment.

Is regulating 3D printers and/or open-source software a good idea? Is it even possible? If so, how should the government go about doing so? Can you think of any other controversial applications of 3D printers?