What 3-D Printing Means for Gun Rights

Cutting-edge technology meets the right to keep and bear arms.


Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) last weekend called for the renewal of a 1988 law that might expire at the end of 2013, the Undetectable Firearms Act. Israel made his announcement at a security checkpoint at Long Island's MacArthur Airport.

Israel and his guest, Suffolk County police chief James Burke, both expressed a panicked reaction to a new technology: 3D printing (which allows you to make plastic objects via computer instructions using a home device), whose cost had plummeted while its availability and media attention have soared in the past few months.

Israel's announced intention—renew the '88 law barring weapons made of material that can't be detected by airport metal detectors—doesn't target 3D printing per se. His rhetoric, though, was hooked to the technology and its supposed ability to make dangerous weapons out of plastic, in, as Burke said, "our children's bedrooms, in basements and in dorm rooms."

That a lawmaker dissed home 3D printing technology, beloved by all who want technological and informational power widely distributed, alarmed science fiction writer and Maker rhetorician Cory Doctorow. He defensively declared at BoingBoing, the ideological home of cool futurism, that Israel wanted to specifically "ban…wiki weapons."

That phrase "wiki weapons," for 3D-printable weapons whose programs would be crowdsourced in wiki fashion, has been made notorious by a group of arty ideologues who work under both that name and the name "Defense Distributed." They have been publicly seeking $20,000 in donations to help coordinate the development and testing of a design that could make a fully functional (if only for one shot) plastic weapon via 3D printer.

Since wiki weapons would likely be made of the plastic that is the typical stuff of 3D printing, Doctorow's accusation is technically true. He goes on, though, to speculate about Israel targeting some of the specific informational techniques of 3D printers, not just possession of plastic weapons themselves. (Israel's office told CNET he is not targeting 3D printing per se.)

Israel's action was, whether he knew it or not, a step in a public dance, partially orchestrated by Cody Wilson, a founder and director of the Wiki Weapons project. Wilson and his crew were not the first to discuss or design or even manufacture parts of 3D printed weapons. But he has made himself a press poster boy for the idea, and sells it with an alternately incendiary and confusing presentation on the Wiki Weapons web site.

"It's a total cultural victory," Wilson says about Israel's announcement, helping cement the official oppositional power of the Wiki Weapons idea, publicizing "the name that conveys the idea of the complete collaborative production of material goods. It was pure political theater," especially in how Israel made the announcement at a TSA checkpoint, "the site of modern security theater."

Wiki Weapons distributed last week a widely publicized video demonstrating the creation of a fully functioning weapon using as one part a plastic lower receiver end of a AR-15 model rifle from a 3D-printable design by a man outside the project, Michael Guslick, who writes under the name "HaveBlue." The gun fell apart after six shots. (The technical details of the failure are discussed at length on Wiki Weapon's "WikiWep DevBlog.")

Plastic lower receivers—the part of the gun that is legally the "gun" to regulators—are actually legal to make, basically as long as you are not selling or distributing them. Guslick, unlike Wilson's team, is not trying to make a fully usable all-parts plastic weapon. Wilson tells me he has applied for and hopes to get a license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that will allow him to become a full-on weapons maker, and he continues to hope his group can crowdsource a digital CAD file that will produce a fully plastic gun that can be made on a home 3D printer.

In the meantime, they are intrigued by HaveBlue's approach. Wilson told me in an email that "Plastic lowers do not require a license to make for yourself….The license is important for when you begin making things that might be considered Title II or NFA [National Firearms Act] firearms. Completely composite weapons likely fall into the AOW [Any Other Weapon] category of weapon as defined by the NFA. There is also the problem of the Undetectable Firearms Act, which only allows manufacturers and their agents to make and possess such prototypes."

Wilson doesn't want you to think he's just a gun guy, a Second Amendment guy, a political rights guy, or some kind of insurrectionist seeking the overthrow of established power via weapons. His group's intriguing web site reads semiotically more like an intensely ironic art project than a flamethrowing techno-political manifesto—"The apocalypse already happened." "The Unconscious is structured like a language." "Tell your mom we're printing guns." He bears down on the techno-anarchy, "information wants to be free" aspect of 3D printing, straining it possibly to its breaking point by grounding the grand promise of decentralized cheap ways to make ideas physically real in something as troubling as weapons.

Weapons are indeed troubling to many, and not just people like Rep. Israel. Wilson and his project got kicked off of crowdfunding leader Indiegogo's site because of the weapon angle, he says. And after publicizing his intent to use a leased 3D printer from Stratasys to print weapons, the company repossessed its machine.

One of the prime online gathering places for 3D makers, Thingiverse (operated by Makerbot, which makes its own 3D printer) has as part of its terms of service a ban on weapons designs. However, it is very thinly enforced, if at all. Wilson seems mordantly amused at how his project forces to the surface contradictions in a standard progressive admiration for "people power" technologies such as 3D printing.

"We're using progressive language about information to confuse the prohibitionist impulse about certain objects," he says. Though he mentions a yen for Ron Paul, Wilson ultimately sounds more like a prankish French literary theorist, talking of how despite the "permissive liberal myth" too many are "really about building an entire social structure around a carceral panoptic culture."

Although his web site's manifesto is full of quotes explicitly about weapons, he talks readily about inspiration from Michel Foucault and Alain Badiou and says that his project is really about the "liberation of information" from what "I perceive as reactionary institutional regimes." While amused by Rep. Israel, he points out the only real problems his project have faced have come not from the public sector, but the private, like Indiegogo and Stratasys.

Anything about guns can always be counted on to excite at least a dedicated minority, and guns continue to make news on both the personal and policy level. Just yesterday, a man in Oregon made national news by using a gun to kill two people and himself at a mall. The same day, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit decided that Second Amendment rights applied outside the home as well as in it. Despite the occasional bursts of limited mania such stories elicit—and that the 3D printing of guns story has elicited—for the most part Americans seem to have come to peace with the fact that guns exist, lots of people have them, and the law can't stop that—and doesn't need to.

The 3D gun printing story is a characteristic postmodern brouhaha, with everyone correct from their perspective. Rep. Israel is correct that home 3D printing endangers the regime of control he represents and serves. The hearty old school Maker is right that 3D printing is a change in convenience, not in kind; that people always had both the means and to some degree the legal right to arm themselves with homemade weapons. Wilson in a video on the Wiki Weapons site offered the metaphor of the printing press; it's apt. People could always write things down, and the printing press just made it easier. Some kinds of easier, though, deposit you in a new world entirely, even if someone who customarily uses CNC routers to make things in their warehouse might think it's no big deal.

That said, those cynical about triumphalist Maker ideology are correct that industrial civilization already supplies us with plentiful and affordable guns even before we all became decentralized information age self-driven manufacturing plants, or whatever the latest 3D printing rhetoric claims, and such regular products are still more affordable than current 3D printer tech, which might never be able to build a completely usable gun.

Wilson may be doing something others have done, but he seems to realize technologies need their ideological snake oil salesmen, playing his game of media, style, and self-consciously dangerous ideas. He sees himself and his team as beyond politics, merely "children of the 'Net" dramatizing the fact that information wanting to be free now has physical implications that can't be denied or stopped. He promises new 3D printing approaches to making lower receivers for weapons will be coming from Wiki Weapons within the week.

Lawmakers such as Israel will keep fighting rearguard actions based on fear of the alarming but unstoppable changes wrought by this new technology. With 3D printing, ideas are manifest in the material world with unprecedented ease. Thus, the idea of keeping guns out of anyone's hands is becoming an immaterial phantasm.