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.