Civil Liberties

The Bureaucratic Saga of Bringing a 3D-Printed Gun to the UK (and Why That Makes 3D Printing So Inevitable)


3D printed Liberator pistol
Defense Distributed

Last month, Wired UK detailed the story behind London's Victoria & Albert Museum acquiring a 3D-printed Liberator pistol for display. The story is an unintentionally hysterical tour through bureaucratic roadblocks, and an object lesson in just how useful personal 3D printing can be in cutting through red tape and giving people access to things they want without having to say "mother may I?" to a horde of petty officials.

Writes Olivia Solon for Wired UK:

when Austin-based Cody Wilson developed a 3D-printed handgun—called The Liberator—that achieved international notoriety, it piqued the interest of curators at the Victoria & Albert Museum. But the museum would not be content with a replica; only a Wilson original would do.

"The museum is interested in provenance and so wanted to explore something that had come from Cody. In a sense it's a bit absurd to have that lineage [for something like a 3D-printed gun], but it's important for the museum," explains V&A Curator of Digital Louise Shannon. …

For Shannon, the legal hurdles around importing such artefacts have become as important to the story as the material objects themselves. When she set out to acquire the pieces, she had no idea how complex the process would be. The V&A is by no means lacking in experience of complicated imports: the museum has one of the world's largest collections of arms and armour and has a license to display firearms under the UK's Firearms Act.

Under the guidance of in-house specialists, Shannon set about seeking an individual import license for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills—a customary measure when bringing a firearm into the UK from outside of the EU. This would need to be accompanied by a Non Transfer of Use certificate from the US Department of State and customs paperwork generated by the fine art transportation specialist agent. Once it arrived at the V&A it would have to be unpacked by a safety specialist and displayed in an extra-thick case.

All of this needed to be completed in time for display in the museum for a show on 14 September 2013. As the deadline approached, the V&A fulfilled its part in the process, gaining the relevant import licence on 13 August. But then the US State Department demanded an updated import license with further specifications relating to the Liberator's components. The UK Department for Business Industry and Skills rejected this request, saying it was "purely cosmetic". The gun appeared to sit squarely in the gap between the two governments' definition of a firearm.

Months later, Cody Wilson's Liberator is still in Texas, held in place by the bureaucratic rules of two nations. The pistol on display in London was printed in the UK, though it's non-working as a matter of principle, because the company that made it backed itself into an ethical corner. Jonathan Rowley, design director for the company that produced the controversial weapon for the V&A museum, told The Independent that after a radio debate with Defense Distributed's Cody Wilson, "I made rather pompous statements that we'd never make one, and then the V&A called up asking us to print one for them.  It was a bit of dilemma because I love the V&A.  So we worked out how we could make one without being hypocritical about it."

Which means they created a non-firing replica.

The museum, being less squeamish than Rowley, still plans to import the real thing from Texas for a future show.

But all of the bureaucratic nightmare was actually a choice. The museum could have bypassed the nonsense by printing the Liberator pistol at home. As 3D printers become increasingly widespread, museum officials could have had an actual working gun from a company with fewer bizarre scruples than Rowley, or purchased their own printer and acted only to please themselves.

It's an interesting story in which bureaucratic red tape has become a nightmarish hurdle, even as technology renders it increasingly optional.