3D Printers, obsolete firearm supply controls and the right to build self-defense weapons under Heller


3d printed rifle

I thought that given the recent publicity about the 3D printed rifle (must read). I’d take a break from the 3D printing and intellectual property series to look at emerging criminal legal matters surrounding 3D printing and draw your attention to a law paper written by law student Peter Jensen-Haxel (which is called a ‘Comment’ in the article so I’m going to use this term from now on) that appeared in the May 2012 issue of the Golden Gate University Law Review (the title of that Comment is the same as the title for this post).

The Comment raises several interesting points that I’ll elaborate on below; keep in mind that it was written before news of the 3D printed rifle.

Legal Terra Nova

As the title suggests, the Comment devotes considerable attention to the 2008 US Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v Heller upholding an individual’s right to possess firearms under the American Second Amendment and analyzes whether this decision means that people in America, who have the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment, also have the right to make arms.

The Comment raises a number of other legal points which I shall not dwell upon but one thing is clear, 3D printing could drastically affect how consumers acquire firearms and render existing regulatory schemes that attempt to regulate firearms through background checks, licensing and record keeping, essentially ineffective if not obsolete. For instance, firearm makers could provide buyers with files that allow buyers to make some components while selling the other parts thereby avoiding licensing or other hassles; people might scan existing weapons or download CAD files for firearms, then later print firearms at home to circumvent background checks.

These are all very interesting, emerging issues – we’re definitely in unchartered waters here.

New Possibilities

The Comment points out that the ability to manufacture all components of a firearm with current 3D printer technology is limited (mostly because many materials presently used in 3D printing cannot withstand the explosive forces within a gun chamber) or because the ability to manufacture certain components such as sophisticated rifled barrels might only be done with high end 3D printers.

However, its author expects that this constraint will go away as, for example, 3D printer technology improves, new firearm designs specifically tailored to 3D printers or less complex versions of pre-existing designs suitable for printing on 3D printers emerge or new firearm designs are introduced. Might a version of a gun invented by Metal Storm (where bullets are stored one behind the other and discharged by an electric current eliminating the need for a complicated system of feeding ammunition or a firing mechanism) one day be produced using 3D printers making circuit boards in tandem with barrels?

Possible reactions

A new debate over firearm acquisition will likely ensue as more people recognize the ability of 3D printers to produce firearms. As legislators become increasingly aware of the limitations of current regulatory mechanisms to limit firearm fabrication on 3D printers, they may employ two strategies to discourage the home manufacturing of firearms either introducing laws criminalizing the act of making or possessing homemade guns, or even banning firearms made by specific processes or materials.

The double use dilemma

good vs bad

The latter legislative approach raises potential double use problems. What I mean by ‘double use’ is that certain technologies, materials, processes, etc. can be used for both good and bad purposes. For example, while the KaZaa peer to peer (P2P) technology could be employed for illegal file sharing, without KaZaa we might not have the popular communications system Skype.

The problem with substance-specific legal restrictions is that the materials best suited for firearm construction can also be used to make strong and safe consumer products.  Banning substances that might be used to produce firearms on 3D printers means that consumers will also be denied the chance to produce legitimate products with those materials on their home fabbers and may be forced to use inferior alternatives.

Finally, the Comment raises the point that the firearm industry itself may encourage more regulation (of home production of firearms with 3D printers) if firearms produced on 3D printers were eroding their sales.

My personal comment: is the Pandora’s box opening?

One area the Comment does not cover is the use of networks to bypass local laws. For instance, if it is illegal to buy firearms in one location, people now can download the required files from somewhere else then print firearms either in the privacy of their own home or take the files and their fabbers to fabricate firearms in a location where this is allowed.

This not only presents jurisdictional challenges for law enforcement but, on an international scale, potentially raises all sorts of political headaches.

There are, of course, other legal implications for those providing firearm designs (something the Comment hints at). Who would be held responsible if, for example, a person printed a firearm with his fabber and injured himself because his 3D printed firearm exploded? The firearm maker? The object’s designer? The service provider hosting the design file? The 3D printer manufacturer? The material supplier? The user himself?

I cannot help but note the emerging parallels with 3D printed firearms and P2P. In the early days of P2P, no one paid much attention – until the entertainment industry began to notice a drop in music sales and started making noise. When it became clear that existing regulatory mechanisms were unable to deal with P2P, governments began introducing more restrictive legislation while record companies and others began aggressively litigation against music and video downloaders – a strategy that some allege has stunted innovation in addition to being ineffective and harmful.

Although there are criminal sanctions for certain infringements of intellectual property rights, I tend to doubt whether anyone was ever seriously injured directly by a music download. However, as a 3D printed firearm is capable of causing significant damage and injury, the stakes here are far, far higher.

More debate and controversy surrounding potential criminal uses of 3D printing is certain  – we are just starting to skim the surface.

About Ronald Yu


7 Responses to “3D Printers, obsolete firearm supply controls and the right to build self-defense weapons under Heller”

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  1. Aaron says:

    I’m not really up on guns, never owned one. But I do respect the right to bears arms. To be honest, I’m thinking of getting one, as i see this country (US) becoming a soft tyranny lately. I don’t trust the government being the only ones with the guns, not with the dictator we have in charge now.

    Anyway, this is a fascinating topic. I’d like to hear from others who are more up to speed with the gun laws of the U.S.

    I’m just a reader of 3D printing now, not a user of the technology, but I’ve been reading this site, and I can sure see how the very near term future could hold the ability to fully print some sort of deadly weapon. Interesting. Gonna be a huge topic.

  2. mark says:

    The printer of the rifle part, whose story ignited the the media frenzy, read this article and sent me some great comments. With his permission, I’m posting them here on his behalf:

    I share Johnny Chung Lee’s fascination (link) with the fact that this simple hunk of plastic resin is regarded as a gun, and is restricted and regulated as a result. I felt one of his comments was especially prescient: “For instance, firearm makers could provide buyers with files that allow buyers to make some components while selling the other parts thereby avoiding licensing or other hassles”. I believe that the intellectual property concerns that home 3D printing will bring to the world of firearms will be far more contentious than having a bunch of teenagers printing out lumpy, warped AR-15 lower receivers as an act of adolescent rebellion (no criminal in his right mind would bother 3D printing gun parts until the technology and ease of use improves measurably).

    Many excellent foreign rifle designs are entirely unavailable in the US due to import restrictions. Take the H&K G36 rifle – enthusiasts have begged and pleaded for a proper semiautomatic version to be made available to the US market (I say ‘proper’, as the SL8 departs from the G36 in look/feel/compatibility). To do so would cost H&K millions of dollars to set up domestic production. But if they were able to import only a few specific non-printable components and provide files to customers (or more likely, ‘authorized 3D printing service providers’), enthusiasts could have the proper G36 that they’ve wanted for years.

    Do I expect this to actually happen? Absolutely not! There’s no way that I can imagine a firearms company would allow their precious intellectual property to make its way to an end user, to say nothing of their concern for quality control. No, what I envision happening is that 3D scanning technology will improve to the point that enthusiasts will simply scan in and reverse engineer the most easily printable parts (likely ones which are normally made from complex, expensive injection molds), posting them on The Pirate Bay or other such sites. If the critical metal parts can be domestically produced via conventional CNC machining at a reasonable price, enthusiasts will simply purchase such components and build with their own printed parts. Naturally, manufacturers will not be happy, but if the construction of an unlicensed clone is done by an ‘end user’ for their own personal use, what can they do? Perhaps this could lead to a renaissance in home gunsmithing. More likely, it will be indicative of the problems facing all industries as they battle an ironic war against their own consumers.

  3. Ronald Yu says:

    Allow me to comment and add a few more points from the Comment that I did not include in the original post.

    I tend to agree that firearm makers will resist sharing their precious intellectual properties particularly their rifling secrets (Gun barrels often have helical grooves cut within their interior to increase a bullet’s range and accuracy this is called ‘rifling’) . However, this does not mean someone else could not provide those bits of knowledge online (legally or illegally) and there is also the possibility that some firearm makers will provide online versions of their designs. After all, record companies who once fought Napster tooth and nail now offer downloads.

    Second, one reason one cannot currently download and print a complete firearm (FYI you might want to read this article http://www.zdnet.com/no-you-cant-download-a-gun-from-the-internet-7000002108/) is that (adding a few more bits from the Comment) the barrel must be cut accurately to ensure a precise fit between the bullet and barrel’s bore and must also be able to withstand the explosive forces and heat generated by both the explosive powder and heat generated by the friction of the moving bullet. This is why, despite the frequent use of plastics in guns most barrels have been made of metal. At the moment, only high end 3D printers can produce such components with the requisite tolerances.

    With respect to legislation the Comment goes into some detail about firearm licensing in America. At its creation, a gun must have a serial number that the firearm manufacturer must keep on record. Anyone engaged in manufacturing, importing or dealing in firearms must be licensed and dealers must keep records on almost all transactions.

    Stricter regulations apply to fully assembled guns under the US National Firearm Act and weapons classified as ‘firearms’ under the Act include machine guns, smooth bore handguns that lack rifling, and machine guns as well as any components designed to convert a weapon to automatic fire.

    When a gun is separated into components, only the central frame or receiver is considered to be a ‘firearm’ for regulatory purposes but because of the great variation in firearms designs, the American Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives designates which component qualifies as a ‘firearm’. All other domestically produced components for common firearms are not regulated.

    Also not regulated is firearm safety with respect to the user; safety is voluntarily maintained by the industry and firearms and ammunition fall outside the ambit of the American Consumer Product Safety Commission.

  4. FirearmFan says:

    Wow, funny how a bunch of tech geeks know nothing about gun laws. (not meaning to be insulting, I too am a tech geek…working in computers for 20+ years) I am also a huge advocate of the 2nd amendment AND free speech! First off, Federal Law REQUIRES ALL firearms be registered with a serial number when manufactured. Hence, ALL firearms have SERIAL numbers! It is ILLEGAL to posses a firearm without a serial number period! Dont quote me on the penalty but I believe if you are in possession of one it is up to 10 years in jail and up to a $250k fine! The fines for manufacturing firearms illegally is even higher.

    So 1st off, let me be clear, there are ALREADY laws on the books making it a crime to create a fully functional firearm without being a licensed FFL manufacturer! NO NEED FOR MORE LAWS! Got to the ATF website and you will find all the laws we already have! Really good bedtime reading!

    Secondly, there should be NO LAWS preventing the publishing of firearm designs so long as they are not protected by law such as copyright infringements. Why? FREE SPEECH! You can get all you need to know as far as instructions on how to create a bomb online due to free speech. Free speech is free and start limiting it and you hit a slippery slope. There is lots of speech I dont like, in fact I despise, BUT just because I don’t like it, I have no right to limit someone else’s free speech!

    Thirdly, building a firearm out of this would not be easy, nor is it safe! Trust me, the common criminal doesn’t even clean his gun properly or hold the gun properly, he certainly isn’t going to build one. Not to mention, if he/she had the money and interest in 3D printing, he’s probably not going to use it to build a gun and commit a crime. Worse case, some hee hahs build one and something goes wrong and they blow their face off and win a darwin award at the same time. Trust me, 95% of firearm owners do not posses the skills to build one, nor do they have the interest. Enter me, sure it would be super cool but I am a law abiding citizen as are most firearm owners. I certainly would never risk loosing everything I have worked hard for to build something I can have built legally through a gun store!

    Okay, I have said my piece. I do want to put in a disclaimer that I am NOT a lawyer nor do I play one on TV. I am, however, extremely adverse on the gun laws and have spent countless hours and sleepless nights on the ATF website as I am considering getting my FFL for custom firearm painting. (Yes, you absolutely need an FFL to paint firearms unless you do your own)

    • Mic says:

      Sorry but you are quite incorrect. That is “Manufacturing”. You have always been able to produce not manufacture a firearm for your own personal use. Here is a vid from a guy who will sell you an 80% finished AR lower and the templates to finish it with a milling bit in a drill press.


      Very much legal and oh well if they don’t like all of this, Its a Right, respect it or suffer the fate of Tyrants.

      I am not a gun owner but I am a Fabricator and I own a Solidoodle3 and am also a Patriot. Any attempt by the Government to regulate this will be met with civil disobedience and possibly legal force. The Constitution does not grant you Rights it innumerates God Given Rights. The State has no power to regulate them because then they would be privileges. Our founders got our modern day better than most of the idiots living in it.

  5. Paul Panza says:

    The search for the better weapon is key to the mess we are in as a global political construct. How does one get a better political climate with more weapons available? My answer is that it does not. Take for example the argument: having nuclear weapons will deter there use. Historically speaking this is not what has happened. Presently the WMD argument is now used to wage war and install illegal aliens onto the sovereign soil of so called third world nations. Instead of 3D printing of firearms I would recommend the 3D printing of morally advanced human constructs. Also the firearm is obsolete given the many possible uses of the HAARP technology, nano tech drones and vibrational weapons in possession of the elite armies of the gun running members of the UN security council. Indigenous populations every where on the planet are serfs and slaves of the petroleum and firearm manufacturers.

  6. InRussetShadows says:

    How does one get a better political climate with more weapons available? Easy. More guns mean less people willing to attack, rape, or rob you, because potential criminals understand they no longer have the advantage over a possible victim and they might die as a result. On a national scale, well-armored nations rarely get invaded. So more weapons leads to more countries being left alone, hence freedom for more nations. This is exactly the idea of self-defense.

    When was the last time a nuclear weapon was used? That would be World War Two — over half a century ago. So does having nuclear weapons deter their use? The answer is an unequivocal “yes”.

    I am a slave of the firearms manufacturers? If so, please show me where they have rules that I must follow — or else. I can’t seem to find my slave rulebook. And if we are all their slaves, then how do leftist anti-gunners still exist? Until I see a cop branding a “vibrational weapon” at me, I’ll find my firearm useful. Please, Paul. Stay off the drugs.

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