Since taking the international stage by appearing on the cover of a February 2011 issue of the Economist, three-dimensional printing has promised to revolutionize manufacturing technology. With it, you can print your own fossil replica, Stradivarius violin , and even a personalized hip replacement. However, one group of Austin libertarians has drawn the attention of federal law enforcement by taking 3-D printing to its next (quintessentially Texan) level: printing guns.
Cody Rutledge Wilson, a second-year University of Texas Law student who hails from Arkansas, co-founded the libertarian group Defense Distributed in March. The group's sole enumerated goal for now seems to be developing a free, sharable digital schematic for a gun that will be available to anyone with a 3-D printer and Internet access.
According to the group’s website, 3-D printing technology can already theoretically be used to circumvent registration requirements for guns like AR-15s. All the interested party has to do is print out the lower receiver of the gun—the part that is actually registered—and then buy the rest of the parts on the open market without having to submit any paperwork.
Defense Distributed, however, has loftier goals, which it claims are based on philosophies of Frederic Bastiat and John Locke. The website hosts a project called WikiWeapon, which aims to use code sent in by volunteers to make a freely available schematic for a gun that anyone can print with a 3-D printer.
Wilson told the TM Daily Post that he raised over $20,000 for the project using crowdfunding site Indiegogo, as well as electronic cash transfers via Bitcoin and PayPal. The group used the money to rent a 3-D printer from the Minnesota printing company Stratasys, according to Slate. But once Stratasys got wind of the project, they sent representatives to repossess the printer, as the manufacturing of guns remains a legal gray area for 3-D printing, a technology still in its infancy.
Wilson says he and his group will press forward, filing paperwork to become an LLC.
“There’s sort of a legal limbo. You know, ‘what class of guns are these, are they title one or title two,' no one knows. We don’t want to be the ones to find out through prosecution,” Wilson told the TM Daily Post .
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has been investigating Defense Distributed’s gun printing project, but Wilson noted in an interview with Wired that the group does not believe it has broken any laws. But it is worth noting that an all-plastic gun could very well be illegal under the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which bans guns that can pass through airport security undetected.
The advent of 3-D printing could open up a new legal frontier, particularly in regards to litigation. The absence of serious regulation on 3-D printing might change, says Eric Goldman, a professor of Law at Santa Clara University who maintains the Technology & Marketing Law Blog .
“The more likely regulatory approach is to try and ban the technology, which is a mistake” he told the TM Daily Post . “The [printable] gun is not the problem. It is how its used that is the problem. We can’t control gun incidents today, and they’re manufactured through such centralized control.”
Regardless of the legality, "monitoring whether people make their own guns on a 3-D printer is going to be impossible, barring sticking an A.T.F. agent in every home. It’s also hopeless to try to build a technology into these printers that prevents people from printing a gun," Nick Bilton pointed out in his story about Wilson's efforts at the New York Times .
What is certain is that the ideas of Wilson's group have resonated with some, which is evidenced by the fact they have managed to raise $20,000 over the Internet in two months.
“The goal is really a different kind of world, where the question of gun control is really off the table," Wilson said. “The powerful will just have to accept that they will live in a world where everyone has access to firearms. Its about giving it to as many people who are interested as possible and harnessing that wiki ethic.”
The question now is if Wilson and his group will be able to realize that goal.
Watch Wilson talk about his ideas: