Updated Jul 28, 2018

Go deeper: The panic over 3D-printed guns

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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

This week, three leading gun control organizations announced their intent to file legal action related to a settlement that will allow an open-source defense firm to post blueprints for 3D-printed guns online.

What's happening: Beginning Aug. 1, Americans will be able to download blueprints for a range of firearms, including AR-15s, and 3D print their own guns without being traced or subjected to background checks. The settlement, which concluded a multi-year lawsuit against the U.S. State Department, has prompted outrage and panic over the future of the gun safety movement.

The backdrop

Defense Distributed was founded in 2012 by Cody Wilson, a 30-year-old "principled anarchist" named one of Wired Magazine's "15 Most Dangerous People in the World."

  • The firm is best known for developing and releasing the digital files for "The Liberator," the world's first fully 3D-printable gun.
  • The plans for the single shot handgun were downloaded more than 100,000 times throughout the world before the State Department intervened, citing regulations against exporting weapons, according to Forbes.
  • Wilson subsequently sued the government for violating not only his right to bear arms, but also his First Amendment right to freely share information. "If code is speech, the constitutional contradictions are evident," Wilson told Wired in 2015.

Pro-gun advocates rejoiced when the Justice Department ruled Wilson could restart his DIY gun-printing operation, with Defense Distributed proclaiming on its website, "The age of the downloadable gun formally begins." But many see it as a devastating blow to a gun control movement that has picked up considerable steam in the months since the Parkland school shooting.

What they're saying

The three gun control organizations suing to prevent the ruling from taking effect called the settlement "far from ordinary" in their letter to the court:

  • "It is dangerous, irreparable and—as the government itself has emphatically argued for years—raises issues of national defense and national security of the highest order. It is also, we believe, illegal.”
  • "With gun schematics in hand, a person can print their own firearm with a commercially available 3D printer—with no criminal background check, no serial number and completely outside the licensed dealer system."
  • "This major expansion of downloadable guns will also undermine the work of law enforcement, who may recover unserialized—and therefore untraceable—guns at crime scenes, and find their criminal investigations stalled before they even start."
The other side

The national panic over Defense Distributed is overblown, Medium blogger BJ Campbell argues:

  • For one, it's already legal to assemble your own gun for personal use under government rules, as long as you don't have a felony or domestic violence charge, Campbell writes.
  • It's also much cheaper to buy a gun than a 3D printer, and even criminals who can't pass a background check would have little difficulty buying what they need on the black market, according to a Frontline investigation.
  • The upper range for the number of 3D printers in the U.S. is believed to be around 300,000 by at least one trade publication's estimate, Campbell adds. In the unlikely scenario that all 300,000 owners decided to print a gun, it would be an increase in guns per capita of just 0.086%.

The bottom line: Pro-gun owners will argue that the debate is far more nuanced than gun control advocates make it out to be. But even if that's true, any development that democratizes access to firearms — especially one as provocative as 3D printing — is bound to trigger backlash.

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