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Push-Button (3D Printing) Gunsmithing and the Long Arm of the Law
Jamais Cascio   May 15, 2013   Open the Future  

California state Senator Leland Yee wants to stop people from being able to print out firearms with 3D printers. Like many other folks, Yee was startled by the work of Defense Distributed, a group working on designs for guns that can be produced by the 3D printers. A few months ago, Defense Distributed crafted a grip and lower receiver for an AR-15; more recently, they produced a fully-functional handgun.

ClickprintbangYee's not the only official trying to put a stop to this: NY Senator Chuck Schumer wants legislation to explicitly outlaw 3D printed guns, and the US Department of Defense recently ordered Defense Distributed to remove the plans from their website while the government sorts out whether they violate weapon export rules. To the surprise of nobody who pays attention to the Internet, the Pirate Bay has already returned the weapon blueprints to the web.

To be clear, these two designs are not world-shaking developments. While the AR-15 grip and receiver are critical parts of the semiautomatic rifle, they're not sufficient to make a working weapon on their own. Conversely, the handgun – called “Liberator” by Defense Distributed – is a nearly-complete design (needing only a penny nail for a firing pin), but it can manage only a few shots before falling apart. It’s essentially a 3D printed zip gun. Nobody's going to start an army with 3D printed weaponry... today.

Tomorrow is a different story: within the decade, it's entirely likely that we'll see a completely functional, high quality semiautomatic (or even fully-automatic) rifle being produced via 3D printing. Many people would consider that to be a bad thing, or at least something requiring close supervision. But what are the realistic options?

Here's the core problem: you can't just tell a 3D printing system not to make a gun. You might be able to tell a system that it can't print out a specific design or file, assuming that you can lock down to printer's operating system so that it can't be altered. But in that scenario, how would you stop the design of a firearm made up of printed components that don't look like gun parts? And even if you could somehow restrict the ability of a printer to make a weapon, any 3D printer able to produce a high-quality firearm would almost certainly be able to print out another 3D printer, this time without the restrictions. This is by no means an outrageous or speculative proposition. Among the earliest-available low-cost 3D printers was (and is) the RepRap -- the Replicating Rapid-Prototyper (an older term for 3D printer).

Senator Schumer seems to be pushing to add 3D printed guns to the existing prohibition on firearms that can't be detected by metal detectors. This would focus on the possession of the weapon, and seems reasonable. State Senator Yee, however, may have bigger ideas:

He’s concerned that just about anyone with access to those cutting-edge printers can arm themselves.

“Terrorists can make these guns and do some horrible things to an individual and then walk away scott-free, and that is something that is really dangerous,” said Yee.

He said while this new technology is impressive, it must be regulated when it comes to making guns. He says background checks, requiring serial numbers and even registering them could be part of new legislation that he says will protect the public.

It's ambiguous, but Yee here is probably talking about checks, serial numbers and such for printed guns. However, he may be referring to the printers themselves as needing controls. And even if Yee isn't yet taking that step -- he has yet to introduce the legislation -- someone else will. But how can you control something that can replicate and evolve?

Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.


If you could hardwire a printer not to make a gun, then I think you could hardwire it not to replicate itself either. I think it would be prudent to limit their ability to self-replicate. Remember, only you can prevent grey goo.

“And that’s the story of how one of me became two and two became four, makin’ seven total. The end.” - Bender from Futurama, espousing a cavalier attitude regarding exponential growth.

Seems practicable to apply registration and licensing for all 3D printers capable of making a weapon, so that indeed means all printers, Registered and licensed by the manufacturer and records of sales kept? This will not prevent anyone from creating weapons without serial numbers however, and there is no way it can?

Now, and more importantly, should freedoms to create these weapons be permitted? And I’m inclined to align myself here WITH the Second Amendment and say yes - why?

Imagine a worst case scenario, civil unrest and revolt against armed police, future careful restriction and embargo on weapons supplied to citizens against armed police? Yes it’s the same old tired argument that the NRA uses to justify gun ownership - yet 3D printing, for some reason, seems to apply to this worst case scenario more reasonably?

Anyhow, the information to print these weapons is “out” now, and information cannot be constrained ever?


I do not live in a country where ammunition can be easily found lying on the street, so I am not personally worried even if every person in my area could print as many cheap guns as he wanted.

I do think that even in countries like America a shift from gun control to ammunition control would solve all social and legal problems with those printing capabilities very elegantly.

While a regulation against general manufacturing or 3D printing is bad in my my opinion.
I do not see how anybody could oppose legislation regulating making or storing of explosive chemicals.

Another problem is that a well equipped conventional garage workshop/support shop/Hackspace can already produce guns of much better quality than those 3D printers.

“Tomorrow is a different story: within the decade, it’s entirely likely that we’ll see a completely functional, high quality semiautomatic (or even fully-automatic) rifle being produced via 3D printing. Many people would consider that to be a bad thing, or at least something requiring close supervision. But what are the realistic options?”

I’ll see your question, and raise you a printable submachinegun:

Frankly, I want one more than most any other weapon I’ve seen in years.  Not that I expect it’ll ever be fired in anger, but it seems like 3D printing and computer-aided design is bringing guns which have been through human-factors engineering down in price from something for Olympians to something any motivated middle-class American can afford.

The idea of serializing 3D printers which can be made out of hardware-store parts worries me, however, and this entire conversation is somewhat surreal only three months after Obama tried to drum up support for 3D printing as the next big thing in manufacturing. 

He was certainly correct, but it’s not quite what he expected now, is it?

Ammunition and munitions regulation would go a long way to help solving issues with hoarding. And what better way than to not only regulate purchase of ammunition, but make it very expensive?

One may still choose to possess “A” weapon for personal security and protection with very little need for hoarding ammunition, and most that do have a weapon rarely need to use it often for protection?

That just leaves gun clubs to carefully regulate and audit use and storage of ammunition for members and their practice. The responsibility would then lie and be charged with the gun clubs, the NRA, and regulated by government?

This again will not prevent or deter people from making their own, sub-standard ammunition, perhaps even using the very same printers? How difficult is it to make bullets that don’t blow up in your face? Many already reuse and refill shell casings to save money?

With reference to my previous comment, it ultimately may still be for the best, and in protecting social freedoms, that this information and ability for civilians to construct weapons en masse is not constrained, and with special reference to the Second Amendment? And in the same manner that we protect freedom of speech and information and use of the Internet, there is need to guard against possibility of political and martial violence?

Yet perhaps we should concentrate on evaluating the risk, as to method and measure taken against 3D weapons printing?

For example, in cases of civil unrest, and possibly the needs of people to form militia to balance the application of force against them, then 3D weapons serve as a potential deterrent and thus of benefit to prevent oppression?

Where the case applies to personal security, then for most, 3D printed weapons may be of little concern, they perhaps would prefer professional manufacturered weapons anyhow?

Where it applies to criminal and gang activities, this must be of greatest concern? Weapons with no serial numbers nor audit track are a boon to criminals and for purposes of murder and assassination. This raises the game and need for tactics and investigation by law enforcement?

Where it applies to individuals and mental health, then yes these weapons do not help regulation and gun control, yet in these cases using a weapon of limited ability with no serial number is of little concern and irrelevant - any weapon will do?

These cases are still a minority, and perhaps the solution to the dilemma is not so much gun control as adequate social and mental healthcare, (again this issue has already been raised)?

Where it applies to children and minors printing and experimenting with guns, then education and social responsibility is the prime concern?

Whichever the manner that a gun is manufactured and constructed is really not as significant as the motive for its use, or the social failures, lack of education and ignorance that fail to prevent its use?

Guns as specific tools to kill easily and at safe distance are not going to ever disappear from this world, nor too the information on how to make them?

Cygnus:  As a rule, violence requires very little ammunition, but practice requires quite a lot.  The reason people buy in bulk or manufacture their own at home is because ammunition is *expensive* and either of these strategies can reduce your cost by more than half.  If you can afford the buy-in, “hoarding” is absolutely the rational approach.

“How difficult is it to make bullets that don’t blow up in your face? Many already reuse and refill shell casings to save money?”

Dirt-simple.  You can get started with a $20 kit and a hammer.  I have one of each.

“Ammunition and munitions regulation would go a long way to help solving issues with hoarding. And what better way than to not only regulate purchase of ammunition, but make it very expensive?”

So the wealthy will have an even greater monopoly on the use of force?  I find it amusing that the wealthy and powerful can get armed bodyguards even in cities where firearms are pretty well entirely illegal.  The warm glow of hypocrisy shines from many of them, for they were the ones who lobbied for that state of affairs; it also rarely has the intended effect.

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