A wiki weapon solution: firearm regulation for the management of 3D printing in the American household.

Author:Curtis, Katie
  1. INTRODUCTION II. ADDITIVE MANUFACTURING III. CURRENT LANDSCAPE OF FIREARM REGULATION A. Federal Firearm Regulations B. Undetectable Firearms Act C. State Level Regulation 1. Louisiana 2. South Carolina 3. Maryland 4. New Jersey IV. PROPOSED LEGISLATION V. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

    As ever increasing media coverage has drawn the public eye to mass shootings in the United States over the last several years, the long-standing debate over regulatory solutions for gun crimes has reached new heights. While those in favor of individuals' gun rights boast that homicide rates have decreased by over 50% since 1991 (1) and gun violence rates have decreased by 49% since its peak in 1993, (2) those in opposition to gun rights focus on statistics showing that seven of the twelve deadliest mass shootings in United States history have occurred since 2007. (3)

    These contrasting schools of thought may be forced by newly accessible technology to compromise and restructure the means by which firearms are regulated. Regulatory developments are already being pursued due to the rapid technological advances in additive manufacturing, which have enabled the average American household to purchase a 3D-printer for the cost of a laptop. (4) These 3D-printers can create products developed from downloadable blueprints ranging from a chess piece to a fully functioning firearm. (5) While the printers available for home use are still rudimentary compared to their more industrial counterparts, (6) the rapid development in technology alarms lawmakers. (7) But are 3Dprinted guns actually worth the fear that gun regulation proponents promulgate? The answer to that question is subject to debate. (8) Yet, as these printers have placed entirely plastic firearms that are undetectable to x-ray scanners within reach of the typical American without any need for a background check, those in support of technological development fear that the focus will fall on regulating the 3D-printers themselves, rather than on what they can produce. (9)

    Part II of this note begins with a general examination of how additive manufacturing works, including the materials utilized in the process and the costs that accompany such materials. Then, attention will turn to the ability of users to print a fully functioning firearm and bullets with a home 3D-printer, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the 3D-printed firearm components. Part III will give an overview of current federal and state laws that regulate firearms in the United States. Considering the wide range of regulation on the state level, states of low, moderate, and high levels of regulation will be represented in the examination. For the purposes of this note, Louisiana, South Carolina, Maryland, and New Jersey will represent the degrees of regulation based on scoring by the Brady Campaign Score for Gun Laws. (10) In Part IV, suggestions for federal regulation and model state legislation will be proposed to regulate 3D-printed firearms without impeding on the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Lawmakers now must balance the interests of all players involved in the gun-rights debate to create a viable safety plan without stifling technological development and constitutional freedoms. Part V concludes the note.


    Additive manufacturing is defined as "the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing methodologies." (11) Although this manufacturing process has existed since the 1980s on an industrial level, 3D-printing was not widely accessible until the technology and software further developed and prices decreased, which only occurred in recent years. (12)

    Additive manufacturing includes an array of 3D-printing methods, including selective laser sintering (SNL), 3D bioprinting, and multi-jet modeling. (13) The most accessible method to the general public, however, is fused filament fabrication (FFF). (14) This technique involves melting plastic filament and layering it to create a 3D product. (15) The 3D-printer creates an object based on a 3D object file, otherwise referred to as a 3D blueprint. (16) While there is software available which allows the user to develop his own blueprint, (17) he may also download a pre-existing blueprint from the Internet. (18) Downloadable blueprints may then be customized to meet the user's specific needs. (19)

    These various additive manufacturing techniques have the potential to create a wide array of products, such as dental fillings, food, and children's toys; (20) but these technologies also have what some consider to be a dark side, fn the spring of 2013, a fully functioning plastic firearm was printed through additive manufacturing techniques. (21) Defense Distributed, (22) founded and led by Cody Wilson, creates downloadable 3D blueprints for a fully functioning "Wiki Weapon" so the world could have access to firearms production. (23) The Liberator, tested in March of 2013, was a single-shot pistol made entirely of 3D-printed plastic, (24) which was based on "a crude US-made single-shot pistol airdropped to French resistance fighters in World War II." (25) Because the Liberator parts were plastic, however, the gun lacked the strength to last beyond a single shot. (26) The barrel split upon the first shot due to an inability to withstand the explosion, which also results in a high risk of self-injury and low accuracy. (27) The blueprints were adjusted, however, to improve issues of unreliability, low accuracy, and weaknesses to create a series of subsequent 3D-printed firearm designs that increased their quality in short order. (28) While the plastic guns still require a great deal of progress to come near the standard of metal firearms, (29) the rapidity of the developments is both impressive and alarming. (30) In addition to the production of firearm parts and complete firearms, 3D printers are also capable of printing plastic bullets. (31) Again, their quality is lower than the readily accessible ammunition available commercially, but these bullets may be produced at home with the addition of a simple purchase of gunpowder. (32)

    There are several concerns that accompany this technological development. First, these entirely plastic firearms may pass unnoticed through security x-ray detectors. Second, no serial number is printed on the firearm for tracking purposes. Third, the 3D-printed weapons may be fired and then promptly melted down and used to create another product. The list goes on. Those fearful of mass killings may look to regulate the actual 3D-printers, but police officials state that more realistic concerns are the use of these weapons for an assassination attempt or sneaking into a courthouse to kill a witness. (33) While there are several counterarguments to these concerns, the rapid development of this technology requires the acute attention of the legislative branch to arrive at a solution that does not violate the individual rights delineated in the United States Constitution before the technology reaches the wrong hands.

    The 3D-printer manufacturers have been proactive in combating the misuse of 3D-printers. (34) A basic firearm detection algorithm has been created to give the printers the ability to block gun parts from being produced. (35) With the enlistment of a database of potential firearm parts, the program compares the design with the blueprints in the database and shuts down production if there is a match. (36) However, the program's primary purpose is to prevent accidental production of a firearm and generally is easily circumvented. While this is a beneficial step to further insulate manufacturers from liability relating to 3D-printed gun crimes or accidents, it will not prevent users from producing a firearm. (37) The algorithm merely aims to protect against mistaken printing and any user who intends to print a firearm could easily evade the algorithm. (38) Further, there is a programmer who has already created encryption software that reconfigures the design sought to be distributed to others so that it does not resemble a banned object. (39) The race to beat the latest technologies is already in full swing.

    Stronger security measures that reduce the risk of 3D-printed weapons escaping detection are in development. The Transportation Safety Administration ("TSA") began a pilot program to test the success of bomb-sniffing dogs at airport security. (40) These dogs patrol security lines for the scent of explosives, such as gunpowder, which helps the security lines to move more quickly because there is no need to remove shoes, jackets, and sweaters. (41) The ability to quickly and effectively detect gunpowder is extremely relevant for 3D-printed weapons because the vast majority of guns need gunpowder to fire.

    Developments in security scanners may also enable long-range scanning of an individual for traces of drugs and gunpowder. (42) While the long-range technology will create privacy concerns, the potential for use in security could be a major factor in the race to keep 3D-printed guns identifiable when going through security checkpoints.

    As 3D-printing technology develops, so do concerns about safety, like undetectable weapons becoming so easily accessible at home. Yet, as new technology challenges our legal system, other technological security measures follow that keep these threats at bay, such as the advances in scanners and the bomb-sniffing dog pilot program.


    Firearm regulation occurs on both the federal and state levels. In order to reach a solution for 3D-printed firearm regulation, there must first be an understanding of the current landscape of firearm regulation by both federal and state governments. As there is a wide range of regulatory schema, states that are representative of the full spectrum will be evaluated. The states analyzed, in the order of most...

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