Legal and Regulatory

U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security imposes ‘EAR’ restrictions on 3D printed guns

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) has announced a transfer in jurisdiction over certain technologies that could be used to 3D print firearms. 

Earlier this year, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a preliminary injunction that removed such technologies from the U.S. Munitions List (USML) and made them exempt from International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

In response, the BIS has now declared that anyone engaged in manufacturing, exporting or ‘furnishing’ 3D printed firearms, are subject to Export Administration Regulations (EAR) instead. To help those currently in possession of the software and machinery needed to produce these munitions stay compliant, the bureau has therefore issued a detailed FAQ, which it “strongly encourages” them to read. 

The U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security.
The U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security. Photo via Miller Proctor.

The BIS calls the shots 

In essence, the BIS’ decision to subject 3D printed firearms to EAR regulation was triggered by an injunction issued by a U.S. District Court in Washington back in March 2020, which prevented it from enforcing ITAR rules on any “technical data and software directly related to the production of firearms or firearm parts using a 3D printer or similar equipment.’’

After this court order, the Department of State declared that its ‘final rule’ 85 FR 3819 had come into effect, meaning that any license requests for related ‘‘technology’’ and ‘‘software” no longer fall under USML jurisdiction. Published in the Federal Register, the announcement effectively saw the BIS inherit authority over 3D printed firearm regulation, subjecting it to articles ‘15 CFR 732.2’ and ‘734.7’ instead. 

Specifically, these two legal codes refer to distinct passages of the EAR, which determine the scope of the legislation’s remit and whether certain 3D printed items are legal or not. In the former, for instance, the code outlines how EAR import/export restrictions now apply to certain 3D printed goods, while many other ‘publicly-available’ technologies continue to remain outside the regulation’s remit. 

With regards to ‘15 CFR 734.7,’ the code elaborates further on this point, saying that a technology is ‘published’ in the public sphere once it’s “available to the public without restrictions,” before adding that this exemption doesn’t apply to certain types of encryption software or any AMF or G-code shared online, which could be used to “produce a firearm frame, receiver or a complete firearm.”

What are EAR regulations?

Of course, the two codes referenced in the Department of Commerce’s announcement represent only a small part of a sprawling piece of regulation, which stretches on for some 774 sections. Luckily, the BIS has put together a handy guide for anyone whose technologies fall under Section C of regulation 734.7, which it urges them to “review closely” so as to not fall foul of related licensing laws. 

Among these FAQs, for instance, it’s made clear that a BIS license is now required to post online ‘‘any file, including any CAD file, that once converted will be in an executable code for the production of a firearm.” Where licenses are issued, they’re set to be valid for four years with those intending to export, required to provide specifics such as the caliber, barrel length and finish of any weaponry. 

In addition to new import/export requirements, the BIS’ advice also explains how firearms that weren’t subject to ITAR restrictions prior to the EAR rules’ first introduction on March 9 2020, are likely to remain exempt unless regulatory amendments are made, although it encourages all those unsure about how the changes affect them to reach out. 

To find out if their specific technology qualifies as “ready for insertion into a computer numerically-controlled machine tool, additive manufacturing equipment or any other equipment,” thus becoming subject to EAR regulation, manufacturers can now submit a free classification request to the BIS via its online SNAP–R submission system. 

Otherwise, those in the business of 3D printing firearm parts can check out the bureau’s full FAQ breakdown here

A crackdown on 3D printed guns?

The last few years has seen manufacturers, regulators and social media firms join forces to discourage gun 3D printing, yet design files seem to be as prevalent as ever on file sharing sites. In 2019, for instance, 3D printer manufacturer Dagoma and TBWA/Paris distributed fake and unusable gun files in an attempt to frustrate those trying to download them. 

Not long before this, Facebook reportedly stated that “sharing instructions on how to produce firearms using 3D printers is “not allowed under its Community Standards.” In response to the move, the Firearms Policy Coalition issued a call to action, asking Facebook to lift the ban on one particular affected site, implying that its freedom of speech had been impeded. 

However, despite these initiatives and the EAR regulations imposed on 3D printed guns, the wider debate surrounding them has raged on for years and it’s unlikely to be the last time the issue rears its head. After all, it was only three years ago that the U.S. Department of Justice overturned a ban on the sharing of gun files, thus the topic is under constant review, even if the resulting guns tend to be ineffectual. 

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Featured image shows the ‘Plastic Liberator’ handgun. Photo via Defense Distributed.