3D Printers and Guns

As I’ve explained before, Deven and I are writing an article about the patent implications of 3D printing. We are not planning to address the issue of using these devices to make guns, but (speaking just for myself) I thought I’d make an observation about that in the wake of the crime in Connecticut.

In speaking to engineers and computer scientists as part of my end of this research, I’ve been told that we are about five years away from people being able to make their own (unregistered) guns and ammunition at home.  Now initially these will not be as good as standard guns, but this innovation will still pose a difficult regulatory challenge.  Sometimes technology resets the terms of legal debate, and we may be closing in on a point where limiting gun ownership will be an option with diminishing returns.  Changing the gun culture, though, is another matter.

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16 Responses

  1. Gerard, I am really looking forward to your article with Deven.

    I think there may be some interesting interplays between the First and Second Amendments in the context of 3D printing, especially if the government seeks to ban the distribution and creation of the digital blueprints to create the firearms. Could the government censor something like the Anarchist’s Cookbook?

    See e.g. http://joshblackman.com/blog/2012/10/22/1-2-3-the-first-and-second-amendments-meet-third-dimensional-printing/

  2. Shag from Brookline says:

    Some First Amendment absolutists are Second Amendment absolutists as well. Is open carry a form of speech protected by the First Amendment as well as the Second?

  3. Brett Bellmore says:

    I think you’ve been speaking to the wrong engineers; We’re about a hundred or more years past people being able to make their own (unregistered) guns and ammo at home. Milling machines and lathes, you know. The only real difference is that the guns you end up with are as good as anything you can buy, rather than decidedly inferior.

    And the existence of black markets already did the deed.

  4. Gerard says:

    Sorry, I was busy in my lathe. Oh, that’s right. 99% of people don’t have one in their house. 3D printers, though, will be a lot more common in the coming years.

  5. Joey says:

    Ok, but let’s be clear:

    – 3-d print a one-use Saturday Night Special equivalent: soon, as your sources say. (Not sure about ammo — probably you’ll need to buy that.)

    – 3-d print a semiautomatic rifle: NOT soon. I doubt this will be happening for many decades if ever.

    Upshot: if the goal were somehow to regulate all guns (and good luck with that…), then 3-d printing would be a problem. But if the question is limiting the spread of tactical arms that kill lots of people very quickly, then 3-d printing is not a threat.

    The biggest threat/problem for any regulatory scheme aiming to limit access to the tactical stuff is how many of these weapons are already in circulation, many of them in the hands of survivalist types (like the mother of the killer in Newtown, Connecticut). Regulating new sales doesn’t do anything about that, although it could perhaps help stop the next mentally unstable kid (without access to semiautomatic weapons at home) from buying them.

  6. Shag from Brookline says:

    The 3D printer would be protected under the First Amendment’s Press Clause and transformed into a gun protected under the Second Amendment, each sending a “message.”

  7. Brett Bellmore says:

    Gerald, I think you’ll find a heck of a lot more people own lathes and milling machines, than own 3d printers. And I expect that state of affairs to endure for quiet a while yet.

  8. prometheefeu says:

    @Brett Bellmore:

    The more salient point may be that making a gun using a lathe and milling machine probably requires more skill than making a gun from a 3d printer will.

  9. Shag from Brookline says:

    Some of the comments bring to mind the Unibomber mentality.

  10. Brett Bellmore says:

    That’s somewhat true, the question being, what’s the limiting factor? Skill, or willingness to break laws? After all, once you’ve got that, you don’t need printer or lathe, that’s what black markets exist to facilitate.

    I suppose it’s possible that the convenience of 3D printers might, at some point, surpass that of the black market. But the black market would still be a backstop for how much you could effect things by regulating 3D printers.

  11. Gun Nut says:

    3d printers can already make the frame. Federal law defines the frame (called the receiver) as the firearm. The NICS (background check) is for transferring the frame.

    No 3d printer can make a barrel or spring, but those are sold over the counter. Similarly, everything you need to make ammunition is sold over the counter, except in a few states.

    Since barrels were always harder to make than frames, regulating the frame never made sense. If people can print a frame at home, it’s time to start defining barrels as the firearm, like some European countries do.

    So, the day of avoiding NICS by printing a frame at home is already here. But, the day of printing an entire firearm at home won’t arrive for decades, if ever.

    But, why print a frame at home when face-to-face sales between individuals don’t require NICS? Since gun shops charge for the background check, almost no private sellers bother. When I sold guns secondhand, I was definitely the aberration because I wanted the buyer to meet me at a gun shop so I could see him pass NICS.

  12. Brett Bellmore says:

    “Since barrels were always harder to make than frames, regulating the frame never made sense.”

    Firearms regulation in this country has always been a bit warped by virtue of the fact that it’s not just being written by people who lack knowledge of firearms, but by people who despise anyone who does possess it. Our gun laws are riddled with idiocy such as you pointed out.

  13. Jon says:

    It’s not a matter of if but when at this point… and I don’t see anybody being able to stop it. A rudimentary gun could be created NOW using just tools from the local hardware store so I fail to see the significance of this to be honest. Fact that it can be 3D printed isn’t much of a game changer.

    Founder of CNCKing.com

  14. Shag from Brookline says:

    Perhaps this started thousands of years ago with the sling shot, as illustrated by David use of it against the Goliath. Technology has advanced quite a bit since then, including as noted in this post/comments. Do those with guns such as used in the recent CT tragedy consider themselves as Davids – or are they the Goliaths?

  15. Gun Nut says:

    Brett, that’s only part of the story. If it wanted, the NRA could direct its lobbying at rationalizing gun control. Instead, the NRA opposes new laws and works to undermine existing laws. (NRA lobbying has kept the ATF from computerizing paper records, for example.)

  16. Brett Bellmore says:

    “Gun Nut”, the NRA does indeed direct it’s lobbying at rationalizing gun laws, when it has lobbying power to spare from fending off assaults. See, for instance, concealed carry reform, or stand your ground laws: From OUR perspective, THAT is “rationalizing” gun laws.

    Were the ATF not subject to regulatory capture by people who oppose gun ownership, did it not have a long record of abusive behavior, were all the laws it enforces respectful of our liberties, we might have some interest in making it more efficient. As things really are, though, it is scarcely in the interest of gun owners that an agency which often views it’s mission as harassing us get better at that.