Why banning 3D printed guns is virtually impossible

Should free-speech gun advocate Cody Wilson be able to provide you with shape files and instructions to create a 3D-printed plastic gun? That’s a question that forces freedom-loving people to think hard about which freedoms they support.

Wilson and his company Defense Distributed sued the government, which was blocking his plan to put the gun blueprints into an online database. The Federal government reached a settlement to allow Wilson to upload the plans and more than 1,000 people downloaded them. But yesterday, after lawsuits by several states, a judge temporarily blocked the site.

To create these guns, you can use a affordable 3D printer to print parts from plastic, then assemble them based on instructions that come with the blueprints. In theory, the plans could include any sort of weapon, including a fully automatic machine gun. For the gun to be lethal, of course, you still need regular metal bullets.

Plastic guns are problematic for several reasons. They pass undetected through metal detectors (a key plot point in the movie “In the Line of Fire,” in which John Malkovich attempts to assassinate the president with a plastic gun). They have no serial numbers. Since you download and assemble them yourself, there is no record of a gun sale, and no background check. It’s not clear whether such a gun would leave unique forensic traces on the bullet, allowing police to match bullets to guns. But guns like this would be so cheap that after committing a crime, you’d probably just throw the gun away and print another one.

Are you for or against downloadable gun plans?

Most liberals are advocates of free speech. The idea of restricting what information is available online — of making certain online content illegal — seems offensive. But if you don’t like the idea of cheap, freely available, untraceable, hard-to-detect plastic guns in the hands of criminals, you probably object to the idea of gun plan downloads.

Conservative gun advocates may have a harder time defending these guns. If you want a gun for self defense, a regular metal gun made by a quality manufacturer is a better bet. By virtue of being untraceable, cheap, and disposable, plastic guns are clearly better suited for crime than self-defense or hunting. And if you are a gun owner in favor of responsible regulation including background checks and restrictions on fully automatic weapons, how can you take a position in favor of guns like this?

I wondered where the NRA would come down on this. It’s not clear that gun owners are in favor of these guns, but I’d bet that gun manufacturers are against them. Why encourage competition for your product from make-it-yourself cheap, plastic guns? But surprisingly, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch rails against 3D printed gun restrictions, calling attempts to regulate the technology “absolutely unenforceable” and labelling these guns “what the rest of us call freedom and innovation.”

Wondering where our president, a gun advocate, comes down in this debate? He’s not sure yet.

Is regulating gun plans practical?

It’s not so easy to block content on the Internet.

Right now, Google points you easily to the Defense Distributed site and DEFCAD, which is where the free gun plans will appear if it prevails in its lawsuit. But what will happen if the government bans the plans?

Defense Distributed, or someone else, will register a site in another country and put plans there. You’ll be able to access it from anywhere, just like any other site.

Google may block that site from appearing in searches, as it does with banned content in some other countries. But other gun enthusiast sites will link to the 3D plans, and as a result, you won’t have much trouble finding them.

Of course, there are more intrusive ways to block content.

You could insist that browsers don’t show it.

You could make possession of such plans illegal.

You could insist that bullet designers create bullets that won’t fire in a plastic gun.

You could require that 3D printers check all plans before printing to determine if they are banned or illegal. (Is it possible to make a shape illegal?)

If you think that you can block people from accessing and using this content, how would you do that without putting onerous restrictions on the usability of the internet?

I don’t like the idea of untraceable guns. But I’m not a fan of breaking the internet to stop them.

What do you think? If you’ve got a workable plan — or a reason for why such a ban is wrong in the first place — I’d love to hear it.

16 responses to “Why banning 3D printed guns is virtually impossible

  1. Now I may be naive and unrealistic, but what if we put our efforts into addressing the underlying causes of crime instead of banning the means of committing it? What if we put our efforts — which may take generations — into creating a world where gun violence — and any other kind of violence — is simply unthinkable?

  2. You can be pro-free speech, and pro-Second Amendment, and still be in favor of a ban on plastic gun plans.

    None of our freedoms is absolute. If you think they are, try downloading some kiddie porn. Yes, it is probably easy to get-but it is also illegal and for good reason. there is a compelling governmental interest in protecting children, and a compelling governmental interest in banning plans to untraceable undetectable guns. I believe such a ban would pass constitutional muster.

    And do we all really want our bodies and our possessions to be subjected to ever more thorough and invasive searches at airports and other places?

    We shouldn’t refrain from making sensible laws just because they will be difficult to enforce.

  3. What about regulating the sale of bullets? Is there currently any regulation on the sale of bullets? You could require the purchaser of bullets to have a license or some sort of proof of owning a registered gun, or maybe a one-time or annual background check per store.

  4. If only our government representatives were having this kind of intelligent conversation, untethered by the money of special interest groups and with only the health and safety of our citizens in mind. Sigh.

  5. Love the conversation, but there are books on the shelves and online that teach how to make homemade guns, explosives, etc. You don’t need to spend $100K on a 3D printer or even leave your home. Unfortunately, an evil mind will not be restricted by laws against the 3D gun… which also has metal parts (firing pin) so it is detectable in a metal detector.

    The same ‘plastic guns’ arguments were made in the 1970s and 80s before the composite designs made famous by Glock and others became commonplace.



  6. Banning and preventing them from being made or existing are two different things… it’s not impossible to ban anything, it’s practically impossible to rid the universe of it.

    So, banning essentially makes it more difficult for people who own or make them because they’ll get punished for breaking the law if they’re caught, thereby making them less likely to exist.

    Also, they don’t even need to be banned for their number to be diminished or prevented; Congress can ban other things needed to build them, or ways to import them, or a myriad of other things to suppress their existence.

    I’m not concerned about a ban or there not being a ban on them due to these reasons, but I really don’t think anybody should be able to just make their own guns outside of the restrictions of an elected body of leaders meant to represent us (whether they actually do or not is a deeper issue).

  7. Josh is pulling the curtain back to reveal a sweeping view of the disruption.

    I believe the DefCad case is fascinating because it sits at the nexus of several disruptive trends — all of which seem inevitable and some of which require one to ponder some deep philosophical questions.

    1) The business disruption: distributed manufacturing (complete with customization options) via desktop milling machines and 3D printers. With software programs like SolidWorks anyone can learn to design physical objects. As with Napster, larger forces (e.g Recording Industry Association of America) will complain loudly and fight the disruption by attacking one source, futilely, as consumers, who want more choice, win in the end. Whether or not distributed manufacturing of firearms will win in the end remains to be seen.

    2) History shows that the best way to ensure something is propagated on the internet is to ban it. A ban simply allows politicians to pretend they’ve done something helpful that will protect the public.

    3) You can’t just regulate bullets in response (e.g. by requiring proof of ownership of a registered firearm). People would simply buy bullets for their friends.

    4) What is the source of rights? I think this is the philosophical question Cody Wilson is driving people to ponder. Do rights only exist when they’re granted to you by an authority? Do you have to obtain permission to have rights? Or are they inherent? Can they be withdrawn on whim by an authority? And, finally, what’s the moral basis for political authority? (This is the core question in philosophy prof Michael Huemer’s book “The Problem of Political Authority” — “What gives the government the right to behave in ways that would be wrong for any non-governmental agent? And why should the rest of us obey the government’s commands?”) Both Huemer and Wilson hold anarchist views. Huemer notes: “Most of those who easily dismiss anarchy, however, do not know what any anarchist theory actually says.” That’s probably true.

    Regardless of what one thinks about these topics, I think it’s a fair assessment to say Wilson was acting from the basis of his own moral and political philosophy, and that has to be grasped to fully understand the situation.

    5) Mass media, being a low-definition medium (in the words of a former colleague of mine) has been ill-prepared to discuss the issue. It’s leaving facts out and dropping useful context. Most people would be surprised to know that Wilson has been selling a desktop milling machine called “Ghost Gunner” (See: https://ghostgunner.net ) and he wasn’t the first to put 3D gun plans on the net. The media (or politicians) can’t be useful in an ethical debate when they’re scrambling to catch up to current developments. I think this will be characteristic of much innovation that’s socially disruptive: the ethical debate will be 20 years behind the times.

    As with the advent of cryptocurrencies and blockchain, it will be difficult for politicians to wrap their minds around these developments, let alone navigate them.

    1. Great discussion. Personally, I would never want to own one of these 3D guns… it is not much different than a making a potato cannon, except that a potato cannon actually works and is fun to play with. These 3D guns are cost prohibitive, they don’t work well, and the pressures from firing them cause the guns to fail (and they only can shoot a .22 round… anything with more pressure causes these plastic 3D guns to explode).

      These 3D plans are more like the original FP-45 Liberator guns manufactured during WW2 that were made of cheap, pot metal (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FP-45_Liberator). They were a psychological operation… the idea was to make the enemy afraid that normal townspeople could have a gun to kill them. When they were dropped behind enemy lines, the occupied population was told to use the Liberator to shoot the enemy and steal his gun. The people behind the 3D plans is to make governments believe it is useless to ban guns, as they can be manufactured by their citizens.

      As for criminals, they don’t follow the law anyway. So making a new law for a tiny fraction of the population is not worth the time of the government. The other group, gun-restricted felons, are not allowed even simple possession of a firearm. That means that having a firearm in their possession is against the law. If you were a felon who wanted to knock off a liquor store, would you use something that is super expensive and doesn’t work, or would you just buy a working firearm illegally? My guess is most felons know where to buy an illegal firearm, but they don’t know many people who own 3D printers and have the ability to build these 3D plastic guns.

    2. Hi Sherrie. Thanks for your extremely detailed and thoughtful reply!

      One thought on #3. I’m sure this isn’t how you meant it, but this sounds like a throw-in-the-towel response, basically saying that no government regulation can ever be successful at anything.

      Take, for example, cigarettes or alcohol. It is not legal to buy either one unless you have proper ID showing that you are a certain age. Can friends still buy cigarettes and booze for their underage friends? Yes, of course. But that doesn’t make the law useless.

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