The recent shootings at the University of California, Santa Barbara and in Las Vegas have brought about the age-old question of gun control in the United States. While the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution has its supporters and critics, the federal government has enacted regulations intent on securing the safety of society by requiring citizens who purchase firearms to register them and hold the necessary licensure. However, recent events are changing how we obtain weapons. What if citizens did not need a license to purchase a firearm at a store, but could instead acquire them with just a computer, a block of plastic, and a 3D printer?
3D printing is a rather new technology, having begun in 1976 with the invention of the inkjet printer, but was not until the mid 1980’s when printing of 3D models began to be developed. While the early printers were limited solely to large companies with the sufficient funds, by 2009 3D printers could be purchased for household use for the relatively cheap price of $2,200. Bringing this technology to households allowed many citizens to create everyday objects inexpensively, but as history has repeatedly demonstrated, technology can also be used for more “radical” purposes. Beginning in 2013, this became a reality when University of Texas Law student Cody Wilson invited the press into his apartment to show off 3D printed gun enhancements. These enhancements, legal even for non-plastic additions, could be printed at the comfort of one’s home after a few hours using a computer program to design the shape. By May 2013, Wilson had developed a fully plastic firearm known as the “Liberator” which he fired to show that 3D printed guns are functional. After successfully testing the firearm, its schematics and CAD design were published online resulting in a huge amount of downloads in the United States as well as internationally. Citizens across the world including a Canadian and Wisconsinite improved flaws in Wilson’s prototype to prevent damage from occurring amongst other technical difficulties.
Concerned about the implications of the relative ease and expense of manufacturing these weapons, some politicians across the country have rallied together to ban 3D gun printing. Citing the Undetectable Firearms Acts of 1988, politicians have argued that the Liberator falls under the category of firearms that are illegal to possess because of it is undetectable nature by X-Ray machines or metal detectors. Politicians such as Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) point out that while 3D printing can be a beneficial technology going forward, its use to print guns can have far-reaching consequences. Critics have argued against Israel’s statement stating that they are entitled to firearms because of the Second Amendment, as well as bringing up First Amendment freedom of speech rights, particularly the idea that although this can be used as a firearm, it could be used as an artistic display of how far printing technology has progressed.
Both sides of the argument must be analyzed fully to understand whether a law needs to be put in place to stop 3D gun printing. First, politicians have reason to be concerned with 3D gun printing. After all they face heavy criticism for increased death rate from guns as well as the tragic high profile shootings continuing to occur, and the public outcry to ban guns altogether. Politicians can actively assert that if we permit 3D gun printing in this country we will have no method to enforce gun control and citizens everywhere will have the capability of printing a gun quickly and with minimum expense. Additionally, it is these 3D printed gun owners who will have a very easy time passing through security checkpoints with no problems, as the gun will not be detected thus leading to concerns about workplace and general public safety. Furthermore, a gun like this could be easily confused for a less lethal toy gun children use as play-toys, and lead to an accidental death when discharged—their non-lethal image and characteristics could easily be overlooked in almost any public setting. Lastly, it will be impossible to regulate who owns a gun if they are not being purchased any more, but being made from a citizen’s own home or work. Without a way of controlling licensure, ownership of these guns will be easily attainable by any citizen looking to own one. While politicians have a strong argument to prevent 3D guns from being printed, proponents for 3D printing have very strong counterpoints.
Proponents arguing for 3D gun printing can point out that a 3D gun is significantly more expensive than purchasing a gun off the street, and although some models have worked, there is no guarantee that it actually functions. However, regardless of whether the actual gun works or not, the government would be infringing on the First Amendment rights of its citizens by not allowing them to use a machine to manufacture a device that is inherently protected by Second Amendment Rights for personal use or as a hobby. While the Undetectable Firearms Acts of 1988 certainly shows that it is illegal to make these guns, proponents can assert just as they do now, that it is solely the tainted mentality of the owner of the gun who kills another, and not the gun itself. In addition, proponents may cite to arguments such as confusion of these plastic firearms and toy guns being used to cause accidental deaths as too speculative. Continuing from this argument, proponents can demonstrate that just like a regular weapon, it is the parent or guardian’s responsibility to educate or hide these weapons from minors to ensure the safety of the household as well as the public.
With all criticism the government currently faces with the current high-profile shootings, the invention of the 3D printed gun couldn’t have come at any worse of a time. The government needs to react quickly to such a pressing issue as it is well known that technology and the internet evolves at a much more rapid pace than the government can keep up with. Applying this to the justice system, criminal defense lawyers will be able to advocate that it would be ridiculous to arrest any individual seen in public with a plastic gun assuming that person to be in possession of a lethal firearm. Even then the defense can assert that if it was a 3D printed gun, it does not necessarily mean it was loaded. However, in the instance that the defense is faced with a possession of an illegal firearm charge, the State or Federal government will have a much easier burden of proof demonstrating that the person charged was aware and conscious that what they were in possession of was a lethal firearm. Ultimately, the test of time will give a better idea of the strategies both sides will use in prosecution and defense of an individual who possess, manufactures, or sells a 3D printed gun.
With the blueprints to these weapons being downloaded across the nation, and reaching foreign countries as far as Japan, changes to gun laws will be seen on both a domestic and international scale. While we always hope that firearms are used responsibly, it has been seen time and time again that they fall into the hands of the wrong people. This is only the first part of a battle the government will face to ensure that firearms continue to be regulated to protect public safety but also guarantee that those who want to own a weapon do not have their Second Amendment rights infringed upon.
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner
Photo by Intel Free Press on Wikimedia Commons.