Government fires back in 3D printer gun dispute


The makers of the blueprints for the first 3D printer-produced gun hoped to spark a debate on the first and second amendments to the US Constitution. That’s just what they’ve got thanks to a government demand to take the designs offline.

The group Defense Distributed recently attracted attention with the first firing of a gun made on a 3D printer. The “Liberator” is made entirely out of plastic with the exception of a metal firing pin.

Powerful as the footage of the first firing might be, this really isn’t primarily a practical issue. Serious questions remain about how accurate the firing of such a gun might be, and whether the plastic could consistently stand up to the heat and pressure of the firing. It looks highly likely that relying on such a weapon would be something of a lottery, with the shooter and bystanders in danger from the plastic exploding.

Instead the real aim of the project is to ask the question of how gun control changes when people have the ability to manufacture a weapon themselves rather than have to buy it and face restrictions and background checks. At the same time, Defense Distributed is arguing that the right to free speech covers the design files, which it sees as merely passing on information, with the recipient responsible for how it is used.

Legal experts have already raised possible objections to these theories. One question is whether the metal firing pin (and any ammunition) would be enough to trigger alerts on security detectors in airports and other locations. Existing US law prevents the manufacture of guns that can’t be detected on such scanners.

The first official response, though, has come from the Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance which has ordered that Defense Distributed remove the files from its site. The government agency is using the somewhat untested argument that allowing people outside the US to download the files breaches a ban on shipping weapons overseas.

Defense Distributed has complied with the order, which will remain in place until the agency has concluded an investigation. However, it’s something of a moot point as the files have already been downloaded 100,000 times and are widely available through torrent sharing and direct download sites that appear to be outside the jurisdiction of the US government.

16 Responses to Government fires back in 3D printer gun dispute

  1. They should, ultimately, prevail on first amendment grounds for the same reason The Anarchist’s Cookbook — providing information is protected by the First Amendment.

    Whether manufacturing the gun itself is legal, that’s another matter.

    Export Controls were used in the 1990s to villify encryption, and prevent the export of strongly encrypted software from the U.S. — I do not believe the law was ever changed, instead the U.S. Government just gave up on enforcing it as American companies turned to first licensing strong encryption from overseas so it became an “import” rather then an “export.”

    This use of export controls originally meant to control sensitive military technology to go after distributing plans to make something out of plastic is just another aspect of “we’re all unindicted felons” of modern America and our too complex, too broad Federal legal code.

    Recently we saw the gun rights debate with gun control advocates saying when the Bill of Rights was written folks had muskets and could not envision today’s guns. Well, in our modern legal framework those muskets meet the definition of a Weapon of Mass Destruction (along with most potato guns) as using an explosive and firing a projectile greater then a half inch — it’s only by the grace of a U.S. Attorney’s discretion to not charge people with blackpowder rifles that they’re not treated as terrorists.

    • Give up weapons? 1, as The Bandit said, “do the letters FO mean anything to you?” 2, what concern is this of yours? (rhetorical, it is none of your concern, so see point 1 again)

  2. I’m not seeing what the big deal is. How can can a gun made of plastic shoot accurately or very well?

    • It can’t, in fact it might shatter when fired, but the point is that it has the potential to cause serious harm or death at close range, is available to anyone with a 3D printer and the right files and is mostly undetectable by metal detectors.

  3. >I’m not seeing what the big deal is. How can can
    >a gun made of plastic shoot accurately or very well?

    Right now, it can’t.

    But you don’t need either accuracy or longevity to pull off most criminal attacks with guns. Both the accuracy and longevity issues could be addressed by creative re-use of existing parts (such as taking and cutting down the barrel of a single shot rifle for use in a newly printed fully-automatic gun). It’s an asymetric use of force when you don’t need to practice much or aim accurately because you have no specific target other then “crowd” or “ex-girlfriend five feet away.”

    The better perspective, perhaps, is to ponder the current craze on banning standard capacity magazines. Never mind if you passed a law to confiscate all existing 30 round magazines for AR-15 style rifles — with today’s 3-D technology you buy three ten round magazines, strip them to obtain their springs, print a 30 round magazine, and put the three springs in series providing enough force and travel distance to feed the 30 rounds.

    So are regulations aimed to control processes that formerly required considerable capital investment (factories) and/or years of specialized training (machinists) to produce really relevant to our modern world?

    Or do you instead place the focus of moving our society forward not on objects, but instead on fixing the human relationships?

    This dual use and asymmetry of force isn’t just an issue with domestic crime and arguments over guns.

    In a decade we’re going to look back at worries about North Korea and Iran having nuclear weapons as a quaint world were old 19th Century European style diplomacy as squeezed through the filter of Cold War diplomacy still functioned.

    We’re developing rapidly the capacity to develop extremely specific bio-weapons. In a decade, fifteen years teaching and many other hospitals globally will have this capacity — oh sure, the good use will be to take a DNA sample of your cancer, whip up the virus that will glob on to it and destroy it. But the same technology could be targeted to individuals, or ethnic groups.

    And it will be a lot cheaper and able to hide in plain sight then traditional biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons.

    We need to address ALL these problems — from drug gangs shooting each other over turf, to international mistrust with the Axis of Evil, as human issues. Because we can no longer control them as technological issues.

  4. The high-strength encryption in the original version of PGP was also cited as “export of munitions without a license” under the law at the time. The creators countered it by publishing the source code as a book – exporting the compiled software was illegal but publishing and distributing the the book is protected. The US federal prosecutors dropped the case, but the courts have ruled several times that source code is protected under the First Amendment.

    Books on the manufacture of firearms or firearm parts by conventional or semi-conventional means have also been protected by the courts, though actually crafting such things is illegal in at least some states. Many chemistry textbooks have sufficient information for making explosives and/or poisons. Some medical textbooks technically could be considered legally obscene, or even to contain child pornography. The real question is not what kind of information you want to restrict, but whether you should restrict anything at all, because every seemingly reasonable class of potentially sensitive information almost inevitably self-sabotages itself into absurdity.

  5. One thing everyone needs to understand is, its just a design, anyone who wants a plastic gun can make one, there have been wooden ones for a long time and even the first Glock had so much plastic that it passed a metal detector, in 1988 they had to make a law so the gun manufactures had to have a certain amount of metal put in the gun so it would be picked up by metal detectors, so the whole idea has been around for years and years. Its the future, you can’t stop it. All we can do is try to fix the social and economical issues and the crime WILL go down.

    • “fix the economic issues” is the precursor to the “redistribute wealth” argument, which never works, raises nobody up (only pulls some down), and dooms a civilization. It’s not economics at all. It’s a combination of too many people, and too much entitlement philosophy, with a side of ability to be too lazy in the luxury of modern life.

      Cut the population (though birth rate reduction – not everyone needs to have a kid), dump entitlement philosophy (tough sell, half the US gov’t [demoncrats] build it’s entire powerbase on this), and you’ll see these problems disappear.