3D printed gun blocked, but disruptive potential of the technology is growing
Cody Wilson made the world’s first working 3D printed gun. Until today, his Texas-based enterprise Defence Distributed was set to make a lot more.
Well actually his company wouldn’t make the guns, anyone with a 3D printer would and they’d do it from the comfort of their own home.
In 2013 Cody Wilson was studying Law at the University of Texas when he decided to design the blueprints for a plastic pistol he named the Liberator.
He uploaded it to the internet where it was downloaded over 100,000 before the US State Department stepped in to make him remove it from the internet.
Yet the plastic starter pistol had been fired and open source guns were part of the world.
Yesterday, hours away from winning a bitterly contested legal fight, his plans were shut down by District Judge Robert Lasnik in Seattle, who issued a temporary restraining order to stop the release nationwide of blueprints to make the untraceable and undetectable 3D-printed guns.
The row has cut to the heart of longstanding debates around intellectual property – and comes as Gartner predicts that by 2021, 40 percent of manufacturing enterprises will establish 3D printing centers of excellence.
“Source Code is Free Speech”
Electronic Frontier Foundation staff Attorney Kit Walsh commented in 2015 that: “The government is trying to use the same tactic it used in the 1990s to block researchers from sharing computer code online.”
“A court first ruled more than 15 years ago that source code was speech protected by the First Amendment, in a case that held the government’s export regulations preventing its publication were unconstitutional. The Fifth Circuit should do the same for design files.”
First Hand Firing of a 3D Printed Gun in 2013 by Cody Wilson
Fighting the Power
For the last four years Cody Wilson has been fighting the US government for the right to distribute the code and blueprints of 3D printable firearms.
Earlier this month he won that case; or so it seemed.
He argued that the initial challenge in 2013 was an attempt to control his right to public speech using the regulations around the International Trafficking of Arms.
One of his key backers was the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) an organisation whose core focus is the rights of US citizens to privately own and possess firearms.
SAF founder Alan M. Gottlieb commented in a released statement that: “Not only is this a First Amendment victory for free speech, it also is a devastating blow to the gun prohibition lobby.”
He notes how the court has moved regulatory control of the technology to the Commerce Department: “Which does not impose prior restraint on public speech.”
“That will allow Defence Distributed and SAF to publish information about 3-D technology.”
Dr. Anthony Fleming professor in Department of Political Science at the University of West Georgia told Computer Business Review that an area where he thinks it “gets much more muddled is the fact that the United States has passed a law in 1988 called the Undetectable Firearms Act.”
This law “bans the manufacture, importation, selling, shipping, possessing, transferring, or receiving any firearm that is undetectable by a metal detector.”
“Based on this act, it would seem like printing a 3D firearm would violate this federal law,” Dr Fleming notes.
A New Era
Without that Seattle judge’s decision, the template for an array of 3D gun schematics would have been made freely available online today.
The blueprints give the capability to print components to make an ‘almost’ functioning firearm. They still need to be fitted with a mechanism to fire the bullet.
Cody Wilsons also sells these mechanisms such as the lower receiver for an AR-15, purchasable on his site for $65.
Defence Distributed a self-described ‘non-profit’ website supplies everything you need to make your 3D printed firearm fully functional.
From the schematics of the gun to the Ghost Runner 2; a machining centre that can complete the last stages of a gun build.
Speaking to Computer Business Review Professor of Law at Georgetown University Lawrence O. Gostin said that: “What is so chilling about 3D guns is that they are for all intents and purposes virtually untraceable by law enforcement or other government regulatory agencies.”
“Printing a gun also bypasses all government controls on firearms, including background checks, which are widely supported by the public. This could make firearms readily available to individuals who could not who would not pass a standard background check like terrorists, convicted felons, and domestic abusers.”
“These 3D firearms would not have a serial number or traceable bullets,” he added.
UK Laws Already Prohibit This
Once Cody Wilson uploaded that first YouTibe video of him firing a working plastic gun the UK Home Office moved quickly to strengthen its gun laws.
New wording was inserted to existing regulations to take into account the emerging commercial technology, stating in legislation that: “3D printed weapons are potentially lethal barreled weapons and must be viewed as such in law. The method of manufacture is not material to this consideration.”
Handguns were legal and tolerated in the UK until March 13, 1996 when Thomas Hamilton walked into Dunblane primary school with two 9mm Browning HP pistols and two Smith & Wesson M19 .357 Magnum revolvers and procced to shoot and kill 16 children and their teacher. This massacre changed Britain’s cultural view of civilian controlled weaponry. From that incident the Firearms Act of 1997 was born and handguns were banned in the UK.
Reminder of Unexpected Consequences of Revolutionary Technology
The 3D gun case illustrates the extent to which the technology can challenge legal as well as business norms. While society is now no doubt safer as a result of the ruling, businesses remain exposed to the disruptive potential of the 3D printer.
Many of the world’s tech companies are looking to capitalise on its potential in less controversial ways: in 2016 HP, for example, launched its HP Jet Fusion 3D Printing system to tap into the $12 trillion manufacturing market and others including GE have been making substantial acquisitions in the market.
3D printing changes the classical ROI equation of high efficiency, low cost large batch production runs. Instead, it makes very short, even one-off production runs practical and increasingly cost-effective. Mass customisation, in short, may be near.