(Ryan Whitman) In the last decade, 3D printers have gone from a monstrously expensive and marginally useful extravagance to something a hobbyist can afford to play around with on the weekends. Consumer-grade 3D printers are getting good enough to create useful objects like phone docks, toys, and tools. You can even create guns from plans downloaded online, and that has governments worried. The US State Department is trying to get out ahead of this one by banning the distribution of 3D printing gun files online. To call this an uphill battle would be an understatement.
This conundrum was kicked off a few years ago when rudimentary guns parts started popping up online as 3D printable files. At the time you’d need to invest at least a few thousand dollars in the printer, and the weapon you got was just as likely to explode as it was to fire a bullet, but technology marches onward. The most famous example of a 3D printed gun is the “Liberator,” a firearm designed by Cody Wilson and his company Defense Distributed. There are videos of Wilson and others successfully firing off multiple .380 rounds from the plastic Liberator.
The Liberator is just the start — there are already designs for other guns and gun-related objects that would be illegal to buy and sell anonymously if they were produced in a traditional way. Right now you can probably find the plans for an extended 30 round magazine or the lower receiver of an AR-15 assault rifle in just a few minutes. This is suddenly getting very real, but we knew the government was planning to do something. The State Department already ordered Defense Distributed to remove the 3D printing files from its website in 2013, but that doesn’t stuff the genie back in the bottle.
These new restrictions are part of a proposed change to the International Traffic in Arms (ITAR) regulations. ITAR is mainly concerned with controlling the import and export of weapons and related items in the US, and schematics could be considered under the purview of the law. Thus, posting a 3D printer file on the internet that tells a machine how to build the Liberator or another gun would be considered exporting it, as anyone in the world could download it. This is, of course, a very loose definition of “export.” The revised ITAR would define export as “remove activities associated with a defense article’s further movement or release outside the United States.”
Does this change anything?
Right now, a gun like the Liberator is not a particularly threatening weapon. It fires bullets, sure, but it does so poorly compared to virtually any real firearm. The danger comes from what it represents. As future 3D printers become more powerful, so do the weapons they can create. Should printing with metal ever become affordable for consumers, things could get scary pretty quickly.
Whether or not you think restricting access to 3D printable guns is a good idea, you have to admit it will be almost impossible to stop it without fundamental changes in how technology operates. If 3D printed guns do become viable weapons, you might even see a call for DRM on 3D printers that prevent them from making unauthorized objects like guns. Hey, maybe throw in copyright infringing files too, while we’re at it. That would be a nice bonus for certain industries.
Once information exists online, it’s virtually impossible to stamp it out. There are parts of the internet that US authorities have no control over and we already know determined groups can evade enforcement activities for years if they want to. Look at how long the Pirate Bay has been chugging along, and there are plenty of gun rights advocates who see nothing wrong with what companies like Defense Distributed are doing. The technology exists andsomeone is going to be willing to support it.
The new rules might not be as clueless as they first seem, though. Banning the posting of gun parts online could merely serve to de-legitimize companies like Defense Distributed. Even if the ban is unenforceable on a grand scale, the government could at least prevent the growth of firms with the business model of creating untraceable guns. At the end of the day, you’ll probably still be able to download the Liberator even if the new rules are adopted. Hell, you can probably drop it in your torrent client right next to the last episode of Game of Thrones.