Using 3D Printing to Explore the Boundaries of the Constitution

Jason Lomberg, North American Editor, PSD



Quick – how do you feel about gun control? How about a printable gun with no serial number that’s immune to metal detectors? Still certain?

One of the hottest test and measurement themes is rapid prototyping, and while medical applications might pay the bills, 3D-printed guns have dominated public discourse. They sound terrifying – anyone with a modicum of technical proficiency can make an untraceable firearm that skirts metal detectors. The reality is a lot more fuzzy.

Back in 2013, college student Cody Wilson released plans for the first 3D-printed gun, the Liberator. His intent was to show the folly of gun control, and his company, Defense Distributed, released the plans to the public domain. The blueprints covered the weapon’s lower receiver, which normally houses the hammer, bolt, trigger mechanism, and serial number. In the United States, the receiver is legally considered the gun.

Just one problem – Cody’s 3D-printed guns don’t have a serial number.

And umpteen lawsuits and injunctions later, Defense Distributed now hosts seven different 3D-printable schematics, including an AR-15 and something resembling an AK-47.

The Undetectable Firearms Act bans the manufacture of any guns that can’t be detected by a metal detector. To skirt that ordinance, guns like the Liberator require a metal plate. But that’s simple, and the Ghost Gunner – a milling machine that allows you to print an unregistered AR-15 from home – makes everything simpler. Defense Distributed sells the Ghost Gunner for $1,500.

Of course, 3D-printed guns aren’t anywhere close to a public safety hazard (not yet, anyway). By many estimates, there’s more firearms in the U.S. than people, and a 3D printer is expensive, so there’s far easier ways to obtain a gun than printing it.

“It’s very unlikely someone’s going to buy a Ghost Gunner, make a gun and then go commit a crime,” claimed Wilson in an interview. “It’s never happened. A third of our entire market is upper-middle-class people in California that have expendable income and enjoy building handguns.”

In other words, nerds and tinkerers.

As of this writing, a federal judge in the Western District of Washington ordered Wilson’s repository of firearm schematics shut down. But Wilson defied that order, and, as of 8/30/18, is selling those schematics. In any case, it’s best to consider these 3D-printable files publicly available.  

In many ways, Wilson’s political crusade mirrors the decades’ long battle over emulation software. Technically, Nintendo emulators aren’t stealing games, but they are providing a platform for others to pirate them. And like Pirate Bay, Defense Distributed has seen its share of legal ups and downs, both centered around the 1st, and in the case of DD, the 2nd Amendment.

In the beginning, Defense Distributed claimed that it wasn’t selling guns – its blueprints were freely and publicly available – which helped it skirt past numerous ATF regulations for the sale of firearms. Nowadays, Wilson pays hundreds of dollars per month to comply with federal guidelines. So he’s not going away, and nor is this issue. And it goes without saying, but Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed aren’t the only players in this game.

And I’ve barely scratched the surface – how do you feel about 3D-printed guns? Should they be more heavily regulated or do they embody the spirit of the 1st and 2nd Amendments?