3D-Printed Firearms: The Return of the Wild West (Episode XV)

“Mathematical precision by the Legislature is not constitutionally required.”

      Over the past few weeks, since being set loose on our research, whenever I tried communicating what I’d learned to anyone, whether they be laymen, laywomen, or fellow debt-enslaved law students, I consistently found the need to explain what 3D-printing even was. Only then, could they accept the fact that 3D-printed firearms were a thing (they are; the internet told me).

      As such, here is the ‘quick and dirty’ on 3D-printers: Firstly, it is far easier to understand a 3D-printer as an industrial machine, rather than an actual printer sitting in your home office or work space. Instead of squirting ink onto a sheet of paper, 3D-printers utilize a variety of material polymers as their ‘ink’ when forming a 3D object. Though plastic is most commonly used, other markets have utilized food substances, biomaterials, metallic polymers, etc. 3D printing is, now, at a level where different ‘ink’ can provide a variety of uses, depending on the type of 3D-object desired. The process of 3D printing itself is actually conveniently basic to wrap your head around. Once a blueprint of a 3D object has been created, that blueprint is sent to a 3D-printer, which in turn, heats whatever material polymer fed to it and prints the polymer layer-by-layer, one at a time, with each layer cooling quickly atop the other until the object is formed. In order to 3D print a more complex object—say, for example, an object with moving parts (a firearm perhaps?)—the entirety of the firearm is not printed in one sitting. Instead, requisite parts are 3D printed separately, which when assembled, create the actual firearm.

      Now, onto the main course of the evening: The state of 3D-printed firearms has seen a momentous degree of evolution over the past few years, which was initially described as unexpected, but when considering American ingenuity for ‘protecting the home’, I would describe as having been inevitable. When it comes to any sort of new technological development, without fail, you can bet on America to somehow utilize it for the production of food, weaponry, and pornography (probably in that order, possibly at the same time).

      News coverage of 3D-printed firearms and overall public attention was incredibly scarce until a non-profit firm known as Defense Distributed shot into the spotlight when it released the “Liberator” in 2013. The firm proclaims itself as being organized to “…defend the human and civil right to keep and bear arms…[and]…produce, publish, and distribute to the public…information and knowledge related to the digital manufacture of arms.” When the “Liberator” hit the market in 2013, its’ blueprints were downloaded over 100,000 times in two days, at which point the State Department sent Defense Distributed a letter, forcing them to take the files down. The ‘damage’, however, had already been done, for the files still exist to this day on torrent sites such as Pirate Bay. (Caution: this link is just to illustrate the availability of the file. I would highly advise not downloading it. Also, Pirate Bay ads can be NSFW.)

      After a series of further developments, Defense Distributed filed suit against the State Department, with the most recent development having been a denial of Defense Distributed’s motion for preliminary injunction. To put the analysis of the court bluntly, when considering the language of various legislations and regulations, Defense Distributed was more than easily informed of the fact that its acts of placing blueprints for a 3D-printed firearm online, for free, clearly classifies as an export and as such, falls within the government’s reach as Defense Distributed applies for export licensing, regardless of the firms constitutional complaints. Amongst the various legislations and regulations involved in the State Department’s letter to Defense Distributed, the lawsuit itself, and other 3D-printed firearm related issues, the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act (UFMA) has been the latest and most covered legislative activity to address such issues. Though the proposed legislation by Rep. Israel (D-NY) has yet to survive a vote, and the text itself makes no mention of 3D-printed firearms whatsoever, it is clear that the intent is to address 3D-printing advancements, as well as unknown future developments.

      For example, the proposed legislation seeks to eliminate text in the original legislation which prohibits any firearm that doesn’t set off x-ray machines, commonly used in airport security, and replace it with text prohibiting a firearm that does not set off common detection devices used in airport security screening. The elimination of the original specificity for x-ray machines allows a broader curtain to encompass other kinds of security detection that may be implemented at some point in the future (a likely possibility given the pervasiveness of plastic polymers utilized in 3D-printing generally, and more specifically in the “Liberator”).

      Given the lack of legal activity surrounding 3D-printing firearms, I have had to branch out a bit into how the law has handled other kinds of firearm related issues that don’t fall within traditional or historical approaches. Among the list of readings that Professor Jacobs sent me was a case in Massachusetts involving a statute banning stun guns. When reading through the case and news articles surrounding it, what kept coming to my mind was, ”Uh oh.” In short, a woman consented to a police search of her purse when they found a stun gun inside it, which is currently banned by MA state law. The woman claimed her possession of it for self-defense against a former abusive boyfriend and raised a 2nd Amendment defense. The court responded by essentially saying that stun guns do not fall within the historical constitutional framework of what the 2nd Amendment means. It went on about how even though modern firearm weaponry exists on a level far beyond what has existed historically, their overall functionality has remained largely unchanged (i.e. how a bullet is fired is how a bullet is fired, regardless of how often, how precise, or during what year). In the courts mind, a stun gun, which sends out electrical volts causing injury or death, does not fall within any sort of historical context; thus a ban on such weapons was not found to be unconstitutional.

      The obvious response to this decision has been a highlighting of how stun guns are notably less dangerous than any firearm. In fact, that they were designed to be less dangerous holds no credence whatsoever in the courts analysis. And as the quote at the start of this blog post suggests, if this decision is representative of the effectiveness of the law in new areas of technological advancements, we future generations of legal professionals are going to have mountains of thick sludge to get through before complex issues such as 3D-printed firearms will be intelligently and precisely addressed.

(If anything in this post was the least bit intriguing, stay tuned for Episode VII, which I will be sure to make available for anyone interested, after our semester of research has finished.)

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~ by nyhoffufl on October 11, 2015.

11 Responses to “3D-Printed Firearms: The Return of the Wild West (Episode XV)”

  1. It is difficult for me to remain impartial when discussing this topic as gun control is one of the few political issues on which I have strong opinions. As much as I would like it for us to go the Australia route, I am fairly certain the NRA will never let that happen. Thus, I had resigned myself to just hoping for universal background checks and psych evals prior to purchases. Then, I learned about this topic.

    Just like I doubt an extreme route like Australia would ever be taken here, I doubt the U.S. would make the same blanket ban to 3D firearms that Japan did (http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/05/man-arrested-for-producing-3d-printed-guns/). Not only would such a ban exceed the scope of existing gun laws, but because of the nature of how the guns are manufactured inside of a civilian’s home, there are significant privacy concerns at play.

    I would think it would be much more difficult to pass legislation regulating gun ownership for guns produced by the owner than those that are purchased over the counter. And even if a ban or significant regulations were passed, I would think based on the advancements that are being made in 3D printing that they would be really difficult to enforce as soon we will not be able to tell the difference based on appearances of the different kinds of guns.

    Because of these complications, there does not seem like an easy solution, but considering the dangerous nature of these products, finding a solution to the issue should be a high priority for lawmakers. I liked the suggestion towards the end of The Washington Post article about regulating gun powder more heavily given that is is not something that can simply be produced by a 3D printer, but in order to get us to the safest solution more will obviously need to be done. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/weapons-made-with-3-d-printers-could-test-gun-control-efforts/2013/02/18/9ad8b45e-779b-11e2-95e4-6148e45d7adb_story.html)

    I look forward to learning more about this and having an informative class discussion.

  2. Obviously the printing of firearms is a problem if it can be replicated so easily and cheaply. While more people download information about 3D printing as it relates to firearms than people who own 3D printers – the issue is the same. How is the government going to regulate it? Should it be regulated?

    What is to stop someone from printing a gun and selling it to someone without a background check? Your answer could be “it’s illegal!”, but how many people already do that? In this case, there are no serial numbers to scratch off and no other trace to find. As someone who is very liberal on this issue, I find this concerning.

    We already have a gun problem in this country, even with those who refuse to admit it. People are more worried about their second amendment rights than the lives of others at this point. “But I need to worry about my second amendment rights to protect my life!” is a dated argument. We’ve got immature 25 year olds boasting their downloaded guns (http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/03/download-this-gun-3d-printed-semi-automatic-fires-over-600-rounds/) and nothing to stop and regulate them. All this person has to do is apply to be able to sell guns?

    We already have an issue with background checks and the most deaths by guns in the whole world, we really don’t need printed, untraceable guns added to the mix. Interested to see what you have to say about this and the government does about it in the future.

  3. With the proliferation of guns at the level it is in U.S.A., I just cannot wrap my mind around allowing individuals to print their own guns. This makes background checks, both for a criminal record and mental health issues, completely useless. If an individual can circumvent law enforcement trying to prevent them from having a gun with a $600 3D printer, then there is no point in regulating the guns made by ordinary producers.

    On top of those early problems, the gun created is completely untraceable. If it made by someone who is a law abiding citizen and sold to someone that is not, the original creator cannot be found because it does not have a serial number. This is another serious problem with #D printing of guns.

    As an individual I do not have any problem with the ownership of firearms by reasonable, well trained individuals, but this completely circumvents the governments ability to keep some seriously dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous individuals. I just cannot believe that this is a good idea or that it should be legal at all.

  4. I am in complete agreement with Anthony and Drew on all of this. It is absolutely terrifying to me that someone can print a gun in their basement that is capable of making it through airport security.

    I am not opposed with people owning guns that have been through background checks, mental health checks, and are law abiding citizens. But our country already has a huge gun problem. 3-D guns are only going to exponentially make this problem worse. The fact that these guns are untraceable also increases the seriousness of this problem.

    I think the Pennsylvania statute that was passed is absolutely reasonable for the time being. Considering we don’t know very much about how 3-D printers work in general I think this legislation is appropriate. As we learn more about the subject I think the legislation will need to be re-written at some point. But our priority should be protecting our citizens.

  5. As 3D printing becomes more common I don’t see how the government will be able to stop people from printing weapons without going through the background check process. Are there any solutions being talked about, besides them being illegal if someone is caught with one. Once 3D printers are common, what is there to stop gangs from printing an armory of guns or a kid with mental issues printing one.

  6. I first heard about 3D printing a few years ago, and at the time I had a hard time grasping exactly what it was. When I heard about it, it didn’t even cross my mind that it would be used by individuals to print guns (but it probably should have, as William points out). I already am not comfortable with the gun laws in the U.S. (I am for more of a U.K. model for gun laws), and this development in technology is creating more danger.

    It especially worries me that an organization like Defense Distributed is releasing blueprints to be downloaded by anyone. And that the blueprints were downloaded by so many. We already have a mass shooting problem in the U.S. I don’t know if the people behind Defense Distributed aren’t considering the types of people (possibly mentally ill) that may be downloading the blueprints, or if they just don’t care. I think the attitudes that some people have towards guns in this country, that it is their absolute right to own them without restrictions, is problematic and dangerous to others.

    I think other cities should follow Philadelphia’s lead and ban 3D-printed guns. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/26/3d-gun-philadelphia_n_4344733.html). Though that article comments that Philadelphia’s move to ban 3D-printed guns may be premature, I disagree. I think that making the move to ban the guns before they become a real threat is the best way to avoid the problems that 3D printers present.

  7. Another interesting topic and another eye-opening week for me. I am saddened that such innovative technology that was probably intended to help others (thinking of biomedical opportunities for example) is being used for something so dark. I think 3D printing will no doubt change the manufacturing world completely in many industries. However, just as certain machines are regulated now, these printers also should be highly regulated especially because they have the ability to make weapons. I think the Philadelphia statute that we read is a step in the right direction. EN1.

    Also, I think the second amendment concerns regarding 3D printing of guns are weak. While the second amendment may be considered in this discussion, the issue here isn’t about people having the right to own a gun. The issue here is about having the right to manufacture a weapon in your own garage. People should not have that right. If 3D printing is regulated more like any other machine used to manufacture weapons, then people’s second amendment rights would still be protected and this new technology will be regulated.

    EN1: Philadelphia Statute: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/26/3d-gun-philadelphia_n_4344733.html

  8. I am a huge nerd when it comes to 3-D printing; I’ve been following the development of the technology since it first hit the news. The sheer volume of things that people can make with this technology is amazing; astronauts print their tools in space, doctors have printed replacement limbs or organs, people have even started to print their own clothing! Combined with the rapidly falling prices of printers and materials (there’s a 3-D printer available for $100 currently at http://www.peachyprinter.com), I foresee a huge upswing in human innovation; you don’t have to be a fancy scientist somewhere to invent something. The advent of this technology means a bored homebody with a few hours to kill can design something extraordinary.

    On the flip side, there ARE sinister applications to this technology. I could print a knife, stab someone with it, and then recycle the materials into something else. Or, as in the readings, I could print guns and distribute them on street corners (if I wanted to be arrested for arms dealing). But I think the legislation is taking the wrong approach; yes, it’s important to have gun controls, but restricting 3-D printing isn’t the answer. Restrict the ammunition.

    I can theoretically print a gun. But I can’t print the volatile mixture of substances needed to make gunpowder, or bullets. By regulating those things, Congress can still allow for the full innovation of 3-D printing (even gun making) to continue while ensuring us a modicum of safety from these 3-D printed weapons.

  9. I too agree with Anthony regarding this 3-D gun printing issue. Over time technology has evolved so much and has its pros and cons. Technology has made things really convenient but when issues like 3-D gun printing come to light it is really concerning and scary.

    When I think about 3-D printing I think of it relating to something in the medical field as Christina highlighted. I never thought of it in regards to someone having the ability to print a gun. The fact that the 3-D gun is also untraceable poses a serious danger. Criminals will easily be able to carry guns without the worry of it being linked back to them and others will follow that lead. I do believe in people having the right to carry a weapon but only if they have gone through the proper steps to possess that weapon.

    In addition to the statute,I believe that the Philadelphia statute is a start but it is going to be difficult for law enforcement to regulate this issue. It will be interesting to see how law enforcement deals with this 3-D gun printing problem as time goes on.

    I look forward to the class discussion on Wednesday!

  10. It is true that 3D printers are amazing. I heard a defense department representative speaking about how the efficiency of certain military aircraft can be greatly improved by using printed parts. The parts are lighter and they can be made in the field. Limbs and organs have already been successfully printed. This is science fiction becoming reality. However, tech ethicists are now starting to write about the dark side of great innovations. And the 3D printing of guns may be a great example of the bad things that can come out of great technological development.

    As lawyers, though, we have to contain that scary feeling that starts to well up when we think of printing a semi-automatic rifle that can fire 600 rounds and may be untraceable. We need to think carefully through whatever meager options may be available to address a new and difficult criminal law problem created by a technological development. Obviously, we don’t want to ban 3D printers. There is a tremendous amount of good that they can and will produce. And yet, as a nation we probably don’t want just anyone to able to print up an arsenal of weapons in his or her basement.

    The Undetectable Firearms Act is an old statute. Rep. Israel’s first attempted to have it modified in 2013. His proposed legislation at that time was filled with language that specifically referred to 3D printing. The Act was reauthorized but none of his language was included. The 2015 version now focuses on the undetectable part as opposed to the 3D printing part.

    We can discuss some of the proposed approaches to the problem in class. They would be: requiring some piece of metal be included in the weapon to keep them detectable; requiring the manufacturers to obtain a federal manufacturing license; to also require them to register as arms dealers; and to require serial numbers and registration of each weapon. Of course none of that would prevent some one bent on breaking the law to circumvent the law, just as today serial numbers can be scratched off a metal weapon.

    Cody Wilson calls himself a “crypto-anarchist.” At the moment he is thinking about his individual freedoms and desire to make his own gun. I wonder if he will still like that terminology if down the road, his loved ones are killed on a plane by someone who is using his invention?

  11. Very interesting topic and the issue underscores the need for some approach to risk of crimes in this new area. I think the MA high court got it wrong in saying the stun gun did not fall under the purview of the second amendment and suggesting that “mathematical precision is not required.” Under an “individual rights” rights theory of 2nd amendment interpretation, mathematical precision wouldn’t come into the analysis. Applying the individual right to defend oneself to her fact scenario and she subjectively believed her stun gun possession was constitutional and I think society is prepared to accept that as reasonable. If a 4th amendment analysis of sorts is applied then I think the right answer would be to hold that the woman’s possession was constitutional, while at the same time reinforcing the rationale for legislative action and protection of the public. The Court’s holding did not need to be to the woman’s detriment to accomplish its objectives.

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