The 3D Printed Gun: The Calm After the Media Storm

The web is on fire with reports of the world’s first 3D printed handgun.  It’s been a perfect media storm fuelled by two high-level news cycles.  First, the public is concerned about gun violence in the wake of recent tragedies, and there is healthy debate about whether or not a legislative response is needed.  Second, 3D printing is the tech darling of the day, and developments are followed as closely as the release of some new Apple product.  Between the two steps Defense Distributed.  Since the announcement was made by Forbes on Friday, there have been literally thousands of news stories on 3D printing and handguns. Most are sensational. They describe an era of undetectable and unregulated firearms.  Lawmakers, predictably, have renewed calls for legislative action.

Many in the 3D printing industry are concerned. They realize the recent technological renaissance has been fueled by openness and a lack of onerous regulation.  They fear that this announcement (and the response to it) could harm the long term development and adoption of the technology.  A closer look at the protagonists in the story reveals that protecting the technology is a goal that they all share.

Legal Language

Most of the legal conversation about 3D printing has centered on its ability to produce “undetectable” firearms.  As most 3D printers produce parts made of plastic or resin, there is justifiable concern that weapons made using the technology could pass through metal detectors unnoticed.  In April, Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) introduced the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act.  The bill was designed to renew legislation from 1988 that made it illegal to create undetectable firearms, and extend that ban from companies to individuals.  This has very little to do with 3D printing specifically, but the original rhetoric around the bill made this difficult to understand.  For example, Representative Israel enlisted support from his colleagues in Congress with a letter titled, “Cosponsor Legislation to Ban 3D Printed Handguns.”  While clever marketing, language like this places undue attention on a potential means of production (3D printing), rather than the undetectable weapons that the bill seeks to prevent.  An unintended consequence of rhetoric like this could be support for restricting 3D printing, one of a host of manufacturing technologies that could produce such a firearm.

Thankfully, the Congressman’s language has changed. In response to the announcement by Defense Distributed on Friday, his office once again released a letter asking for support for his bill.  This time, however, the letter was titled, “Co-Sponsor Legislation to Continue the Ban on Plastic Guns.”  This change in word choice is incredibly deliberate.  It shifts attention away from the technology to the prevention of undetectable weapons.  Why the change?  It seems that the Congressman has listened to the concerns of members of the 3D printing community.  Groups like Public Knowledge, the public interest group that recently hosted 3DDCII, have worked to highlight the positive way that 3D printing is being used.  The result is a focus on the real threat to public safety – undetectable firearms – rather than a technology that can be used to make them.  This is a pretty big deal.  The Congressman is choosing language that will draw less media attention to protect 3D printing.  Bravo.

Defense Distributed Does Its Part?

Opinions are divided on the work that Defense Distributed is doing, but it appears that Cody Wilson and his team share the Congressman’s concern for the technology.  This concern is revealed by the group’s (oft overlooked) decision to include a 6 oz. piece of steel in their plans for the “Liberator.”  This design decision makes the handgun a “detectable” firearm.  Aside from helping the group to comply with existing US law, it indicates that their personal aim is not to use 3D printing to produce the sort of undetectable weapon that the Congressman is concerned with.

The “Read Me” instructions (below) that come with the CAD files give very explicit instructions about how to comply with existing law when assembling the “Liberator”.  They refer to the steel as an “integral” part of the frame.



From “Liberator” CAD File Download – ReadMe.txt

How to legally assemble the DD Liberator:

-Print (ONLY) the frame sideways (the shortest dimension is the Z axis).  USC18 922(p)(2)(A)*: “For the purposes of this subsection (The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988) – the term ‘firearm’ does not include the frame or receiver of any such weapon;”

Thus, you can legally print ONLY the frame entirely in plastic, even without 3.7 ounces of steel. 

-Once the frame is finished, epoxy a 1.19×1.19×0.99″ block of steel in the 1.2×1.2×1.0″ hole in front of the trigger guard.  Add the bottom cover over the metal if you don’t want it to show.

Once the epoxy has dried, the steel is no longer removable, and is an integral part of the frame.  Now your gun has ~6 ounces of steel and is thus considered a ‘detectable’ firearm.  So now you can print all the other parts.



It would be naïve to say the inclusion of the steel block solves the potential problems with the Liberator.  It is unclear, for example, what would happen if the gun were assembled without the block.  But the design decision is interesting, showing compliance and a desire to retain firearm manufacturer status  while using the technology.

There are plenty of questions left to be answered, but it’s comforting to see that lawmakers and Defense Distributed seemingly are working to ensure that 3D printing is not an unintended casualty of the fight.

Michael Weinberg, of Public Knowledge, has written several interesting blog posts on the intersection of guns, public policy and 3D printing.  You can read more about the work his organization is doing here.