Look What’s in Pandora’s Box: A 3D-Printed Wiki Weapon

Defense_Distributed“Printing real world objects,” announced Business Insider on New Year’s Day 2013, “is going to be the next big thing in computing” (Love, 2013). President Obama even recognized 3D printing in his State of the Union Address, calling it a revolution in manufacturing (Stadecker, 2013). Yes, 3D printers are coming to a store near you, and for the low-low price of $1500 or less, and they are going to play holy hell with existing laws, among them the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) (Finkelstein, 2006). Wired.com calls it the “forthcoming legal morass” (Thompson, 2012).

As you can imagine, the advent of 3D printing has opened a Pandora’s box, not only for manufacturers and lawyers but for would-be inventors, hobbyists – and of course, criminals, who can now look forward to printing a gun invisible to metal detectors. You will always find criminals on the cutting edge of technology. You will always find lawmakers and law enforcement playing catch-up. That is the reality of the world we live in: 3D printing is a technological revolution and we are behind the eight-ball – or worse, in someone’s plastic sights thanks to DIY gunsmithing and so-called “Wiki Weapons.” As always, the rest of us will be caught in the middle, often confused.

I will try to clear things up a bit. Here, as an example of the controversy, is a recent story from CNN Jake Tapper:

On Thursday, reported Forbes,

Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson received a letter from the State Department Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance demanding that he take down the online blueprints for the 3D-printable “Liberator” handgun that his group released Monday, along with nine other 3D-printable firearms components hosted on the group’s website Defcad.org. The government says it wants to review the files for compliance with arms export control laws known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR. By uploading the weapons files to the Internet and allowing them to be downloaded abroad, the letter implies Wilson’s high-tech gun group may have violated those export controls (Greenberg, 2013).

Printable guns aside, there are numerous problems with the new technology of 3D printing. The potential for copyright infringement are obvious. Complicating Digital Rights Management (DRM) issues is the diverse array of items that can be copied, many of them by people for their own use rather than for any illicit gain (Rideout, 2011). Here as elsewhere, things are seldom black and white: Though piracy is responsible for increasing prices of items (Guess et al, 2006), open-source 3D printing has contributed positively to the legitimate industry of designing, manufacturing, and selling 3D printers (Rideout, 2013). Widespread use of 3D printers will also change the retail landscape entirely (Phillips, 2012) and will have a dramatic effect on global supply chains (McKendrick, 2012). Think of the trickle-down effect. But that’s another story.

There are also questions about how existing laws apply to 3D printing technology (Rideout, 2011; Sadecker, 2013). Copyright owners should be protected, and like musicians they should be compensated for cases of theft. But where does the line get drawn between legitimate and illegitimate use of material? A software manufacturer can employ usage counters (as Symantec did with my copy of Norton 360, which limited installation to three computers) but what about books? Can I loan a book I buy to only three people, or does or should anybody care (and should they care) how many people I share a book with? Can I resell my book when I’ve read it, and if so, why not my video game? Yes, retailers and distributers lose money due to piracy (Guess et al, 2006) but what about the consumer’s rights to whatever he legitimately purchased? Where does the manufacturer’s or developer’s rights end, and mine begin? Do antipiracy techniques limit the degree to which I can actually be said to own anything I buy?

Lawmakers must be careful not to use a hammer so big that it pummels the innocent along with the guilty. Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-NY) solution to the Wiki Weapon problem is simple and avoids attacking 3D printing in general. It also has the virtue of appealing to an existing law: the Undectable Firearms Act of 1988, recently renewed by President George W. Bush in 2003.

It is possible to have “too much or too little regulation” (Rideout, 2013, p. 177). Yes, copyright protections must be extended to include 3D objects (Rideout, 2013), but entertainment is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to 3D printing. Making a gun at home might be thought by many to be a bad idea with a capital “B” while others think the problem is overblown (Terdiman, 2013) but immediate problem or not, 3D printing stands to make a bad joke of the entire gun-control debate (Jeltsen, 2013; Rosenwald, 2013). In the post-9/11 world, the government must regulate the production of weapons, particularly firearms. No doubt some will argue that the Second Amendment protects their rights to 3D print whatever weapons they want to print. It is a nightmare in the making.

Let me put it to you this way: The gun-printing issue is frankly terrifying. As Jensen-Haxel wrote (2012), federal firearms regulations will be made obsolete. Not only will plastics and composites not show up on the metal detectors that now protect our airports, but children will be able to make guns at home. Children are already busy killing each other and others with their parents’ guns. How much worse will it be when a child activates the family’s 3D printer and makes himself a rather dangerous “toy” gun? Heated as the gun-control debate is, it is certain to become even more heated. Progressive news site AlterNet recently asked, “What could possibly go wrong?” (Gottesdiener, 2012). The mind boggles.

Fortunately, hobbyists don’t have the required materials available yet to make guns that survive beyond a few firings, but it is only a matter of time (Molinksy, 2013). I am certain opponents of gun control will be delighted but I have to wonder if some of them have thought about the fact that the “bad guys” will be able to print them too. And so far, there has been no evidence that “good guys” armed with guns kill “bad guys” with guns and save the innocent. Mostly, it’s just bad guys running amok. Recently, in one experiment, a printed AR-15 fired only six times, but how many times must a gun fire to kill somebody? (Russell, 2012) Six shots is potentially six dead people.

Copyright laws aside, printing guns go into my Big Book of Bad Things. Worst of all, from my perspective, Jensen-Haxel (2012) argues that printing firearms may be protected under District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), which protects a person’s right to possess firearms. I find Jensen-Haxel’s employment of the old adage, “Abe Lincoln may have set all men free, but Sam Colt made them equal” far from reassuring (Jensen-Haxel, 2012) not only for my reasons given above (well-meaning and well-armed citizens are not protecting the rest of us) but also because even in the so-called “Wild West,” communities like Dodge City enacted gun-control laws as rapidly as they could in order to cut down on violence: Before Dodge city came under the control of local authorities, gun violence claimed between 16 and 19 lives in just a year, while in the following four years (gun ordinances in place) not a single individual died as a result of gun violence (Udall., Dykstra, Bellesiles, Marks, Nobles, 2000).

Next time a homeowner yells at a neighbor child to get off his lawn or out of his garden, he may want to reconsider the paradigm used to determine the relative value of his property versus his life, because you never know what kind of printer little Johnny has in his basement, or access to what sorts of CAD files.


Finkelstein, S. (2006). The Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In H. Bidgoli (Ed.), Handbook of   information security, volume 2. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Gottesdiener, L. (2012, October 3). Gun enthusiasts create printable firearms – what could possibly go wrong? AlterNet. Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org/tea-party-and-right/gun-enthusiasts-create-printable-firearms-what-could-possibly-go-wrong

Greenberg, A. (2013, May 9). State department demands takedown of 3D-printable gun files for possible export control violations. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from             http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/05/09/state-department-demands-takedown-of-3d-printable-gun-for-possible-export-control-violation/

Jeltsen, M. (2013, March 26). 3D printed gun movement poses challenge to gun-control efforts.  The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/26/3d-printed-gun-movement_n_2957695.html

Jensen-Haxel, P. (2012). 3D printers, obsolete firearm supply controls, and the right to build self-defense weapons under Heller. Golden Gate University Law Review, 42(3), 447-496.

Love, D. (2013, January 1). The best 3D printers on the planet. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/best-3d-printers-2012-12?op=1

McKendrick, J. (2012, October 9). 3D printing may put global supply chains out of business:  Report. SmartPlanet.com. Retrieved from http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/bulletin/3d-printing-may-put-global-supply-chains-out-of-business-report/2019

Molinksy, E. (2013, February 6). Using 3D printers to make gun parts raises alarms. NPR.  Retrieved from http://m.npr.org/story/171154845

Phillips, C. (2012, August 22). 3D printing: The next retail revolution. PowerRetail.com.  Retrieved from http://www.powerretail.com.au/technology/3d-printingnext-retail-revolution/

Rideout, B. (2011, November 15). Printing the Impossible Triangle: The Copyright Implications of Three-Dimensional Printing. The Journal of Business, Entrepreneurship & the  Law,5(1), 161-177.

Rosenwald, M. (2013, February 18). Weapons made with 3-D printers could test gun-control efforts. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-02-18/local/37160880_1_gun-control-gun-range-gun-owners

Russell, M. (2012, December 21). These actually exist: 3D printed guns. Newser.com. Retrieved  from http://www.newser.com/story/159720/these-actually-exist-3d-printed-guns.html

Stadecker, C. (2013, April 4). 3D printing: How will IP law handle the “next revolution” in manufacturing? JdSupra.com. Retrieved from  http://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/3d-printing-how-will-ip-law-handle-the-69885/

Terdiman, D. (2013, May 9). Why fear of 3D-printed guns is overblown. CNET.com. Retrieved from http://news.cnet.com/8301-11386_3-57583823-76/why-fear-of-3d-printed-guns-is-overblown/

Thompson, C. (2012, May 31). 3D printing’s forthcoming legal morass. Wired UK. Retrieved from http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-05/31/3d-printing-copyright

Udall, S., Dykstra, R., Bellesiles, M., Marks, P., Nobles, G. (2000). How the west got wild:  American media and frontier violence roundtable. The Western Historical  Quarterly, 31(3), 277-295.

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