On the Regulation of 3D-Printed Firearms
On May 5th, 2013, a young man named Cody Wilson changed the world forever by
posting a small file online. For the past year, the former law student had been working on what
he called the “Wiki Weapons Project” through the non-profit organization known as Defense
Distributed, which he had founded. In their own words, the group “sought to create a political
and legal vehicle for demonstrating and promoting the subversive potential of publicly-available
3D Printing technologies” (“DD History”). Josh Blackman, of the South Texas College of Law,
explains that the project was ultimately successful in its aims—using nothing more than hard
plastics and additive manufacturing (3D-printing), they created a small handgun, named the
Liberator. It was capable of lethally firing a single bullet, and “later versions were able to fire
six-hundred rounds successfully” (Blackman 510). Soon after the testing, Wilson posted the
Liberator’s digital blueprints to the internet for the public to access. They were downloaded over
100,000 times in the two days they were available before the U.S. State Department requested
their removal (Lee 1400).
Understandably enough, the public and the media exploded with fear. What were the
implications of this new technology? Could anyone owning a 3D-printer produce a lethal,
undetectable firearm at will? The week Defense Distributed posted a YouTube video of the
Liberator and then the Computer-Aided Design (CAD) files for the gun online, Senator Chuck
Schumer frantically called for Congress to criminalize the production of 3D-printed weapons.
Tim Murphy, of Mother Jones, explains that although he was ultimately unsuccessful, Congress
did renew the Undetectable Firearms Act (UFA), which had been set to expire that year.
However, that legislation is rather outdated, and won’t “take many significant steps to stop 3-D-
printed weapons from being printed” (Murphy). This begs the question: what governmental
regulations ought to oversee the manufacture, distribution, and use of this new 3D printing
technology, specifically in regard to the production of firearms?
In this paper, I will first provide a brief explanation of the additive manufacturing process
in general and particularly of how 3D-printed guns can be, and have been, created. We will
discuss some of the unique dangers posed by these unconventional weapons, the possible ways
that federal and state governments could go about regulation, and the constitutional implications
both the first and second amendments have on potential regulations. Finally, I will argue that the
United States can and should mandate post-production gun control regulations, but that there
should be no restraints on the manufacture of 3D-printed firearms prior to their printing.
Essentially, all levels of government should take a cautious and rational approach to this new
industry—not legislating in panic, but instead, focusing on the real empirical implications of this
Additive manufacturing involves complex engineering and computing techniques, but
can be easily utilized without an understanding of the intricate machine workings (just like this
paper can be printed without a full understanding of how a laser printer works). Rather than
squirting ink onto a page, however, 3D-printers use liquid plastic or other substances that harden
upon excretion to shape new products. The structure of these products is determined by computer
code, packaged into CAD files (Blackman 484-5). Users can design, download, and share CAD
files easily. As Julia Cosans writes in the American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy
& the Law, some call this new technology the “dawn of a new industrial revolution” in which
consumers will be able to “instantaneously create new or existing products in real time from the
comfort of [their] own home[s]” (Cosans 917). Indeed, this is already occurring. According to
Barton Lee of the University of North Carolina, hard plastic printers are readily available for
personal use for only a few hundred dollars, and printers similar to that Wilson used to produce
the Liberator cost less than $2,000 (Lee 1396). Anne Lewis, editor for the Tulane Journal of
Technology and Intellectual Property, claims that just as the cost of conventional printing has
decreased dramatically in the years since the invention of the printing press, so should we expect
additive manufacturing technology to improve and become less expensive (Lewis 308). The field
is only just emerging, and while it clearly has great potential to change the way society functions,
we need to cautiously examine exactly what those changes will be.
As we first saw with Defense Distributed, it’s possible to produce firearms through 3D-
printing. These new weapons bring new dangers. James B. Jacobs, of the NYU School of Law,
and Alex Haberman, of the Fordham School of Law, have enumerated several of the key threats
of 3D gunsmithing. The first is that of evading metal detection (Jacobs and Haberman 141).
Being made of plastic could make the firearms valuable for use in terrorist attacks or
assassinations. This is a legitimate concern, but it fails to look at the big picture. For one,
ammunition is still detectable. Writing for Popular Mechanics, Glenn Reynolds claims that
cartridges will still usually be made of metal, even for plastic guns—and thus the fear that these
weapons will be able to sneak onto airplanes is mostly overblown. Additionally, other common
modern security measures, including “backscatter-X-ray” and “millimeter-wave-radar-imagers”
could detect even a purely plastic gun. 3D-printed firearms are much more difficult to obtain
than ordinary weapons, but for those situations in which criminals may find that trouble
worthwhile, sufficient security procedures can still neutralize the threat (Reynolds).
Further dangers posed by these firearms include the evasion of background checking and
of the tracing of the weapon. While the United States already has famously lax gun control laws,
most states do currently require individuals to undergo a mandatory background check (and often
a mental health examination) before purchasing a gun. Jacobs and Haberman explain that
“In truth, the evolution of 3D firearm printing will significantly undermine the
effort to keep firearms out of the hands of unreliable and dangerous individuals.
Firearms-ineligible individuals will be able to make guns themselves or acquire
them from unlicensed gunsmiths using 3D-printing technology. Although guns
are already easily acquired by prohibited persons, the advent of 3D printing will
make it even easier.”
Nevertheless, they go on to write that background checks are rarely a hinderance to those who
plan to use guns illegally—when purchasing from private vendors, no background check is
required; “straw purchases” (wherein an acquaintance with a clean record buys a gun for
someone else) are common (Jacobs and Haberman 142-4). Katie Curtis, of the Rutgers School of
Law, writes that another concern would be the lack of serial numbers and registration for these
homemade weapons. If used to commit a crime, these guns would not only be untraceable, they
could be melted down at will. Like Jacobs and Haberman, however, she ultimately concludes
that until 3D-printed firearms become more economically practical, the desire to avoid a
background check or to have an untraceable weapon will probably not be sufficient reason for
most people to turn to guns created by additive manufacturing (Curtis 79).
The final threat that Jacobs and Haberman identify is the evasion of the machine gun ban.
They point out that automatic weapons have been banned for over half a century in the United
States, and that to introduce the ability for any common citizen to produce these terrible weapons
could be devastating (Jacobs and Haberman 144-5). However, as Gerald Walther of the Institute
for Science Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester explains, this is really only a
potentiality that might be realized sometime in the more distant future, but not in the next few
years. Automatic weapons will be much more difficult to design and to physically construct by
additive manufacturing, and at the relatively primitive position at which we can produce
handguns with this technology, it will be a while before we can progress to more dangerous
weapons (Walther 1437-42).
Clearly, 3D-printed firearms present many alarming problems that need to be addressed.
Gun control is already an extremely controversial topic, but even while maintaining the status
quo for traditional weapons, we can see that the government needs to provide some additional
regulation for the emerging world of 3D-printed weaponry. I differentiate the different types of
regulations we could establish as either prior restraint (i.e., before printing) regulations or post-
production regulations. Prior restraint regulations include monitoring and censoring the spread of
certain CAD files online and outright banning attempts to produce homemade, 3D-printed
firearms. Post-production regulations include requiring background checks for those who have
printed guns, mandating the registration of printed guns and the addition of serial numbers, or
requiring permits for anyone carrying 3D-printed firearms. I will discuss some of the relevant
legislation that’s already in place, and the efficacy and constitutionality of additional potential
One of the most obvious and popular restrictions that could be placed on 3D-printed guns
is the censorship of CAD files. Like any blueprint or computer program, these files require
technical expertise to design individually, yet one of the biggest concerns is that any lay citizen
will be able to find and download these dangerous files just by browsing the internet. When the
U.S. State Department’s Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance requested that Wilson
remove the files for the Liberator from the internet, they did so by citing the International Traffic
in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which prohibit not only the transfer of weapons to foreign
nationals, but also the transmission of technical data (Lee 1399). Danton Bryans, of the Indiana
University Maurer School of Law, observed that nowhere in the Department of State’s letter was
it established that posting a blueprint for a small firearm actually constitutes a violation of these
regulations. He writes that “the ITAR-based demand was at least foundationally lacking in this
instance,” and that “the future effectiveness of the ITAR faces clear challenges with the ever-
increasing connectivity and decentralization of the Internet.” Indeed, according to Bryans, it will
be impossible for the government to completely censor anything online (Bryans 911-4), and as
Lee pointed out, the Liberator’s CAD files (and much other “illegal” content) are still available
on sites such as The Pirate Bay (Lee 1400). Even attempts to regulate these files from a patent-
or copyright-based point of view will most certainly fail; many argue that additive manufacturing
in general “will do for physical objects what MP3 files did for music” (Lewis 310). Evidently,
prior restraint regulations are most likely be unfeasible.
However, just because enforcement is difficult doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be
attempted; after all, while we understand the reality of internet traffic, we still criminalize the
piracy of digital music. That’s why it’s significant to note that even beyond their efficacy, it’s
probable that such prior restraints on 3D-printed firearms will also violate first amendment
rights. Blackman explains that under free speech doctrines, “3D CAD files of guns are, in truth,
nothing more than information”—and information is speech. The Supreme Court has long held
that freedom of expression extends to almost any communication medium, whether spoken and
written word, film, video games, or even flag-burning, and it will almost certainly hold that CAD
files are simply another form of communication for which regulations will deserve strict
constitutional scrutiny, i.e., the assumption that regulations are unconstitutional until proven
otherwise (Blackman 498-500). Furthermore, specific court rulings such as Junger v. Daley and
the Bernstein cases specifically identify source code, such as that used for digital security and
encryption, as protectable speech, and this could also apply to additive manufacturing blueprints
(Bryans 922-4). Lee concludes that “CAD files like those of the Liberator have significant
artistic and scientific value beyond computer code such that these files should be treated as
speech” and “deserve First Amendment protection” (Lee 1394, 1410).
Admittedly, it seems almost absurd to claim that the production of a weapon could be
considered speech. Gracie Holden, of the Florida Coastal Law Review, believes that censoring
CAD files “would not deny an individual the freedom to associate with anyone” because they
could still do so through other means, and therefore, that such censorship is completely
permissible (Holden 286). In that regard, she is correct, but simple association is a very narrow
view of the amendment (which include expressive activity, functional activity, the “right to
know”, and other legal intricacies) (Cosans 915-6). Another strong advocate for 3D-printed
firearm regulations, Jean Meyer of the University of Denver, makes a case for a first amendment
exception on the basis that 3D-printed guns will inherently be “crime-inciting” speech (Meyer
569). While this could be valid, Cody Wilson’s case itself—in which a law-abiding citizen
sought only to make a political statement by printing a weapon—is a counterexample, and
governmental review of every single download request would be necessary to uphold the
standard of the “incitement to imminent lawless action” exception to the first amendment
(Bryans 921). For 3D-printed gunsmithing, this standard is “an inexact fit” (Lee 1413). Even
Meyer is eventually unable to demonstrate the legality of prior restraint legislation, only
concluding that “there will be continued and extensive litigation in the matter of whether source
code is constitutionally protected free speech” (Meyer 572). As inconvenient as it may be, it
seems that the creation, possession, and transmission of CAD files, and all pre-production
activities relating to 3D-printed firearms, are necessarily permitted by the first amendment to the
The remaining possibilities for 3D-printed gun control fall under the realm of post-
production regulation, the first type of which is existing regulation such as the UFA. Although
the Undetectable Firearms Act was renewed in 2013, all it does is ban any weapon that does not
contain at least 3.7 ounces of metal—for the explicit purpose of security and metal detection
(Bryans 914). However, this is easily worked around by metal firing pins (something that even
most plastic guns have anyway). Not only do these allow “someone to go undetected by
removing the pin and carrying it separate from the gun,” but even if this or another metal
component of the same size is contained in the gun, it may be overlooked. This kind of event has
already happened: journalists in Israel carried a copy of the Liberator, with a metal firing pin, to
a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and were not hindered by metal detectors.
Predictably, this incited some panic internationally (Lewis 309).
American laws would certainly not have done anything more to stop that threat,
especially not considering the strength of our Constitution’s second amendment. It seems as
though gun control debates rage across the United States on a monthly basis, with no real
progress made on either side of the political spectrum. Why would 3D-printed weapons be any
different? Many people might argue that it’s the private, in-home production of these weapons
that might spark some compromise in an otherwise dogmatic debate. Surely, if nothing else, we
can prohibit the hidden creation of dangerous, lethal weapons in the backyards of American
However, Blackman convincingly reasons that a “meaningful right to keep and bear arms
would require the preliminary steps of being able to create, and obtain guns.” Citing one of the
few Supreme Court cases pertaining to gun control, D.C. v. Heller, he explains that prerequisite
to keeping and bearing arms is the corresponding right to acquire arms (such as through
commercial sale). Yet what is even more fundamental, he claims, is the right to make arms
yourself. Unbeknownst to many Americans, this practice has always been a “fairly well-
established” tradition (Blackman 490-1, 496-7). There are a considerable number of resources
for those who seek to practice “do-it-yourself gunsmithing”: YouTube videos, books, websites,
and apparently “some gun enthusiasts also offer “group builds” for” those who want to
participate in a clinic. Crude, improvised firearms are more common in other countries, but are
sometimes used here within the United States as well (Jacobs and Haberman 138-9). DIY
firearms are apparently very prevalent, yet they aren’t usually much of a problem. If this is the
case, additive manufacturing doesn’t seem to provide much more of a risk.
Jacobs and Haberman cover this aspect of the issue in detail. They write that “considering
how common gunsmithing has been, and is, the advent of 3D-printed firearms is arguably a
modest technological development rather than a game changer.” In the status quo, those who buy
and sell guns, or manufacture them for that purpose, must apply for a license from the
government, and each weapon must be registered and bear a serial number of some sorts.
However, those that make their own guns have virtually no regulations whatsoever. For 3D-
printed gunsmithing, these homemade, unregulated guns will become much more common, and
pose a greater threat. As is now becoming law in California, states should begin requiring the
registration of homemade guns—or at least 3D-printed guns—with the state, and fit each gun
with a permanent serial number. Mandating background checks for those who have printed guns
and requiring a license to carry would also be a worthwhile step. Unfortunately, “[t]he problem
is compliance and enforcement.” Evading these laws will, for the foreseeable future, be quite
easy for those who plan to commit crimes and don’t mind risking the fines for not obtaining a
license (Jacobs and Haberman 139-140, 145-6). It seems that no regulations—prior restraint or
post-production—are both constitutional and effective.
Although we should do what we can despite these challenges, it’s important to remember
that on balance, additive manufacturing is a vastly more beneficial technology than it is negative.
For the sake of national economic development, “it is crucial that our government does not over-
regulate this new technology” (Curtis 107). We need to carefully weigh the hindering of
scientific innovation and the advancement of industry against the problems of national security
and domestic public safety. Moreover, we should recognize that at present, “3D-printed guns
will not compete successfully with traditionally manufactured guns in terms of reliability,
quality, and cost” (Jacobs and Haberman 147). Almost all criminal threats and acts of terrorism
will utilize conventional firearms rather than overly expensive, mostly untested, hard-plastic 3D-
printed weapons. They may become more of a problem in the future, but it’s not yet time to
Overall, we as a society, and the United States as a government, ought to be very wary of
the dangerous consequences of 3D-printed technology. Regardless of how successful these
measures are in preventing criminals from accessing these weapons, public policy can and
should include mandating background checks, the registration of printed guns, the addition of
metal components with serial numbers to the firearms, and the criminalization of use without a
permit. However, we should refrain from legislating prior restraint regulations. Not only are such
laws almost always unconstitutional, they are also unenforceable. Additionally, placing burdens
on manufacturers and designers, rather than the consumers, could seriously hinder the innovation
and development of additive manufacturing processes as a whole. Through enacting the right
kinds of regulations, people can not only be protected, but also allowed to thrive and progress.
Most importantly, as we navigate the murky waters of this new industry and the dangers it
brings, we need to ensure that reason is at the helm—not fear.
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