Having made it into the New York Times, it looks like it is time to talk about 3D printing and firearms.  The tl;dr version of this post is: this is an interesting development that is not really new but does provide a useful framework to start thinking about the larger policy issues around 3D printers.

Some Background

Over a year ago…

3D printers are machines that can turn digital objects into physical things.  They are general purpose manufacturing machines and, as such, the scope of “things” that they can produce is broad.  Like all general-purpose machines, they can be used to create things that one might consider beneficial to society as well as things that one might consider detrimental to society.  Without taking a position on which category firearms fit into, it probably should not have come as a surprise when, last year, parts for firearms started showing up on Thingiverse, a website devoted to sharing 3D printing files.

The initial reaction to this within the 3D printing community was decidedly mixed. There werediscussions about free speech, the responsibility of sharing files like this, and even if it was possible to make a firearm with existing consumer grade 3D printers.  Ultimately the thingiverse team decided not to take down firearms.

During the initial controversy, the source of the 3D printing designs went largely unnoticed.  This is unfortunate, because the origins of the designs will be very helpful in thinking through the policy implications of 3D printed weapons.  It turns out that HaveBlue, the thingiverse user who originally posted the part, obtained his original file from a website called CNCGuns.com.  CNCGuns is a site that is designed “to show gun enthusiasts the different types of firearms that can be manufactured using CNC (Computer Numerical Control) equipment.”  CNC equipment is the type of equipment that you might find in a standard machine shop.  

This indicates that there is a community of people who are already trading files and manufacturing firearms at home that predate consumer access to 3D printing.  In fact, they are using technology that is (currently) far more widespread and better at making firearms than 3D printers.  On its face this is neither a good nor bad thing.  However, it does suggest that we already have a way to think about what it means when people can create firearms at home.  After all, they have been doing so for some time.

This July

The conversation evolved a bit this summer when HaveBlue announced that he had successfully fired the 3D printed gun.  While only part of the gun was actually 3D printed (the “lower”) this was still big news.  As far as anyone can tell, this was the first example of someone 3D printing and firing a firearm.  Although HaveBlue was not using a consumer-grade 3D printer, because of the age of the machine that he did use and the pace of innovation in the consumer area it largely put to rest questions about whether or not it would be possible to use consumer-grade 3D printers to build working firearms.

This August

Hot on the heels of HaveBlue’s successful firing, a group called the Defense Distributed launchedthe Wiki Weapon Project.  In a video on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, the group’s members requested $20,000 to develop and freely release files that would allow someone to print a firearm on a consumer-grade 3D printer.

This September

Although Indiegogo pulled the project from its site, the Wiki Weapon Project announced that it has succeeded in meeting its $20,000 fundraising goal.  The bulk of this money was earmarked to lease a commercial-grade 3D printer from the company Stratasys.

This October

Upon learning about the Wiki Weapon Project, Stratasys cancelled the Wiki Weapon Project’s lease and reclaimed the printer.  At this point, the Wiki Weapon Project is presumed to be looking for a new printer.

What does this mean?

While this is undoubtedly a high profile incident, it is not likely to be the last story where people raise concerns about something being produced by 3D printers.  In light of that, it is probably useful to have a general framework to use to analyze these controversies.

The first question that we should ask is “is this actually new?”  In other words, is 3D printing allowing people to do something that they were unable to do before, or is this simply getting attention because someone got around to doing it with a 3D printer?

In this case, the answer appears to be “no.”  Remember, the source of these files is an existing community of people who use machining tools to create firearms.  These machines are computer operated and can make objects out of metal.  While attaching “3D printing” to the activity might raise its profile, presumably our national firearms policy already recognizes that people can make weapons at home and has structured rules accordingly.

The second question is “even if it is not new, does it fundamentally change the existing activity?”  Again, in this case the answer seems to be “no.”  People were downloading files used to make firearms on automated (or semi-automated) machines before they had access to 3D printers and, at this stage, it is hard to see how this changes that activity.  I suspect that there are still many more CNC milling machines in this country than 3D printers.  

The third question is “is it possible to fundamentally change the existing activity in the future?”  The answer to this question, as it will often be, is “maybe.”  Today more people have access to CNC milling machines and machining shops than 3D printers, but you could certainly imagine a future where that was not the case. A world where it is easy to download firearms files and most people have access to 3D printers (still an if) might change the existing dynamic enough to justify developing new policies.

But that is the real challenge with all policy connected to 3D printing (and to emerging technologies more generally): being able to imagine a way where a technology could be misused in the future is not a sound basis for policy, and certainly not a sound basis to limit its growth.  

Imagining a futuristic 3D printing dystopia and then trying to create policies to stop it will inevitably be a counterproductive exercise for at least two reasons.  First, the imagined dystopic future will never actually happen.  If we were good at predicting how new technologies would impact society we would all be rich.  That makes new legislation designed to prevent the bad future a waste of time at best.

Second, and more problematic, is that any legislation aimed at preventing an imagined future is much more likely to block unexpected positive developments.  We do not know how 3D printing will actually impact society, but we can be fairly sure that today’s projections will seem laughable 10 or 20 years from now.  Laws enacted during a time of 3D printing anxiety are much more likely to prevent good things than block bad things.

Looking forward

This does not mean that we need to wait until people are doing troubling things with 3D printers before doing anything about it.  However, we should at least understand how those troubling things will actually play out before we take steps to limit what people can do with the technology.

It is tempting to assume that every question raised in the context of 3D printing is somehow a question of first impression that has not been considered before.  However, in reality that will rarely be the case.  Most of the questions that are raised in the context of 3D printing have been raised before and they have reasonable solutions.  One of the greatest challenges presented by the growth of 3D printing will be to recognize when a question is truly new, and when it is just a complicated problem that has been around for years.


image: Thingiverse user HaveBlue.

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