3D Printing and the Upcoming Cultural Crisis in Gun Control


3D printers represent a technology that may have great implications for the culture of prohibition–that idea that “things” can be controlled by regulation. Certainly this has become true for questions of copyright when it comes to the ease-of-copying and the digital era; but now 3D printers are bringing the ability to produce tangible objects into the hands of consumers–and, with the introduction of the physible, the ability to download plans for those objects from the Internet.

In the United States, gun control is a very big issue due to the lethal potential of the weapon and extremely active media coverage of events that involve guns. During 2012 alone, several mass shootings brought guns and gun control to the forefront of public attention. This means that anything even remotely related to the subject will also pull the spotlight. Guns are controlled through licensing and registering manufacturers as well as regulating how they’re made.

3D printers will more than likely entirely change the playing field.

A recent episode of CSI:NY posited a 3D printed revolver that could fire one or two shots before being destroyed (not entirely within the current technology, but that’s fiction for you). What we have entering the media nowadays is about being able to make parts for guns that take much less abuse such as the lower-receiver for an AR-15 (enabling the weapon to become automatic) and high capacity ammo magazines.

Fox News currently has an article by Perry Chiaramonte that speaks to exactly the problem of regulating manufacture in the era of 3D printable items.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre has led to the discussion and passage of legislation designed to regulate gun parts. New York specifically banned magazines holding more than than seven rounds and a federal bill proposed by proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) that would ban magazines over ten rounds.

The “Cuomo Clip,” named for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who pushed the high-capacity clip ban through the Legislature, is made from a plastic filament similar to the type of material used to manufacture LEGO building blocks. It is also loaded with a large spring that helps to push rounds of ammo into the gun chamber.

The ammo magazine clip appears to be durable; Defense Distributed test-fired 86 rounds from a 30-round prototype last month, and the clip showed no signs of damage.

The controversy surrounding the capability of printing gun parts that would circumvent these type of bans has already been felt in the 3D printing community.

Companies who make 3D printers do not want to be caught up in the controversy. In the case of a research project at University of Texas in Austin, Stratasys reposessed a rented uPrint SE 3D printer from a student trying to produce a printable gun prototype. Also in 2012, 3D printer firm Markerbot policed their own downloadable prototypes on Thingiverse for physible guns and gun parts, removing any found from the database. At around the same time Shapeways also purged their databases of gun related downloadable content.

It’s worth noting that the student mentioned above happened to be Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed.

A company that also intends to set up a database to house purged or otherwise “fugitive” physibles that involve printable-gun related components. They already have a wiki project that contains CAD files for numerous different gun parts from AR-15 components to pistol stocks. Amid them, the schematics and instructions for printing a high capacity magazine that would make any ban of said component highly ineffective.

According to Wilson the site has seen “hundreds of thousands” of visitors since the schematics for the high capacity magazine was posted in mid-January.

Chances are good many of these downloaders do not have 3D printers of their own, but it does suggest that there’s a notable popularity for people to look into this technology in order to make their own magazine in the face of such a prohibition as New York has. No doubt, further news of legislation and the development of the federal bill will continue to bring this story back into the limelight.