The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The Right to Print Guns

Scientists, economists and ordinary enthusiasts have all been excited, each for their own reasons, about the potential of 3D printers. We doubt many had this in mind: WikiWeapon, a small tech project founded by a group of young libertarians, has just received thousands of dollars to create a blueprint for a plastic gun which users could download and print out in the privacy of their own home. The Guardian reports (h/t Marginal Revolution):

The project’s goal is not to develop and sell a working gun, but rather to create an open-source schematic (or blueprint) that individuals could download and use to print their own weapons at home.

The technology that makes this possible is 3D printing, a process during which plastic resin is deposited layer by layer to create a three dimensional object. In the past few years 3D printers have become increasingly affordable, and just last week the first two retail stores selling 3D printers opened in the United States with models ranging from$600 to $2,199.

Downloading and printing a gun may already be legal:

According to Dave Kopel, the research director of the Independence Institute, it is legal to create pistols, revolvers and rifles at home, although some states are stricter than others. As long as an inventor isn’t selling, sharing or trading the weapon, under federal law, a license isn’t necessary. Homemade creations also don’t need to be registered with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and are legal for use by the individual who created the weapon.

Then again, it may not:

Either way, if a fully functional plastic Wiki Weapon is printed, it may be illegal upon creation thanks to an obscure law from the late 1980s. In 1988, Congress passed the Undetectable Firearms Act after the Glock company provoked controversy by selling firearms made with plastic polymers. The technique, which was revolutionary at the time but is common in the industry today, alarmed many gun control advocates who were concerned that plastic guns wouldn’t register in airport x-ray machines.

This is only the latest example of a disruptive new technology raising thorny legal issues. Similar cases will enter the legislatures and the courts as 3D printing becomes cheaper and more widely available.

But the issues raised in the U.S. don’t compare to those raised worldwide. Imagine, for example what a group of sincerely religious people in a small town in northern Mali who’ve been deeply hurt by a mean-spirited video about a famous religious leader could do with a 3D printer and access to online blueprints for guns? Or explosives?

The 21st century is going to be an interesting place.

Published on September 28, 2012 7:00 pm