3D Printed Guns

Illegal printing of 3D weapons is now considered a misdemeanor

Additive manufacturing, which is a less colloquial but more technical term for 3D printing, is already being used in many industries including, toys, auto manufacturing, and as the title of this blog points out, defense products.

3D printers produce three-dimensional objects by successively layering materials by following the instructions of a digital file that is often designed in AutoCAD or other software too complicated for the average consumer to learn overnight. Learning the ins and outs of AutoCAD however is not an impossible feat, testimony to this appeal is a law Texan student. In May 23, 2013, smack in the middle of the gun control debate that seemed to pre-occupy the entirety of the US population in that same year, Cody Wilson, a law student from Texas, released for online consumption blue-prints for a 3D printed gun he named “the Liberator.”

Files to the Liberator were allegedly downloaded 100,000 times despite the domestic ban by the U.S. State’s Department to keep the files from reaching the masses. However, if you’ve kept up with our blog, keeping private information a secret, even when the use of this information is banned by government agencies, techies with a knack for hacking, especially when fueled by personal convictions against the appropriation of information by government bodies manage to extract and spread the information with ease, regardless of what government decrees.

One of the initial threats posed by the Liberator were in its design. Almost entirely printed in a plastic polymer, the Liberator is composed of 16 pieces, fifteen of which may be printed in any household 3D printer. A common hardware store nail, which is used a a firing pin, is the sixteenth and only non-printed piece in Wilson’s design. It’s resemblance to a kitchen appliance (an electronic whisker set perhaps) makes it nonetheless deadlier. The Texas law student re-worked his design several times, trying to get rid of glitches that caused the .380 caliber bullet to jam in the plastic barrel of the gun, and in the worst of cases, to backfire. Eventually, however, Wilson did get the design right, and by the time he finally fired the gun by hand for the first time and in front of a camera, the Liberator could fire about ten rounds before its barrel snapped – enter other techies who designed removable barrels to replace the shattered ones in only seconds.

For all its drawbacks, the Liberator did not fail to cause the conversation surrounding gun control to shift towards alternative methods though which gun-control laws could be evaded. Even if heavy gun-control policies were implemented, it was uncertain whether 3D weapons were  to be considered guns in the books. With no set regulations on additive manufacturing methods, did the same regulations for regular weapons apply to plastic home-printed weapons?

A writer for Forbes reported that Wilson’s Liberator was more than a utilitarian tool. Amidst the commotion the gun control policy had stirred, especially in gun-friendly states, Wilson argues that his motivation was intellectual rather than outright insurrectionist. From Wilson’s perspective, the Liberator was a psychological attack on the government. Albeit admitting that his design could potentially be used to harm people, Wilson claimed the Liberator’s main contribution to the political unrest surrounding gun control was underlining the fact that society now had the Internet and its infinite capabilities facilitated the design and manufacturing of goods whether or not their production was authorized by government bodies.

The political and technological climate has shifted since 2013. Wilson is now 27 and consumer 3D printers which were once bound to plastic polymer printing can now produce metal objects. Federal regulations on plastic firearms, which were renewed last month, apply to some but not all types of 3D printed weapons.

If passed, a California lawmaker’s legislation, bill SB 808 would allow for the manufacturing of homemade weapons but only after users are approved by the Department of Justice and are awarded a serial number to track their production of 3D printed weapons. Violations of the bill would be considered misdemeanors and punishable with a fine of up to $1,000, 1 year in jail for an illegal handgun, and 6 months time for a shotgun or rifle.

This is only the first set of heavy regulations looming towards the 3D printing industry.

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