When a Plastic Gun is No Longer Just a Toy

In December 2012, a non-profit organization called Defense Distributed based in Texas announced that they had successfully fired an AR-15 semi-automatic, with a 3D printed lower receiver. You can read about the details of the test and watch a video here. The 3D object design for the lower receiver had been made freely available by another user via Thingiverse. Several months earlier, Defense Distributed published a three-pronged plan which includes developing a fully printable firearm, adapting the design to cheaper 3D printers and creating a wiki commons for 3D printable firearms.

ar15 gun

3D printed lower receiver on AR-15 semi-automatic. Image Source: WikiWep DevBlog

A video showcasing the demo of the working AR-15 semi automatic with 3D printed lower receiver went viral, with media outlets covering the story, including Forbes, Fox News and The Huffington Post. Naturally, the discussions and media coverage around this event have in large part been focused around gun control. Those in favor of tighter legislation have used the recent accomplishment of Defense Distributed as an example of  how access to guns could become significantly easier and widespread moving forward, if said access is not more tightly regulated. Those believing that additional gun control is unnecessary or that gun control is unwarranted altogether often view Defense Distributed efforts as an assertion and reinforcement of the U.S. Constitution’s 2nd Amendment of the right to keep and bear arms.

Rather than taking a personal political stance on the issue of 3D printed guns, which I would like to avoid doing at this time, I think it would be more constructive to consider several key issues that this topic raises in the areas of science and technology studies, information science and information policy.

In his seminal piece, “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” Langdon Winner asserts that technology (in the form of machines, structures and systems) can embody specific forms of power and authority (1986). The author uses a discussion about technological politics as a point of departure for his own analysis of the way in which artifacts can embody political properties. The theory of technological politics places real importance on technological artifacts in ways that other perspectives do not. Winner believes that there are two ways that artifacts embody political properties: 1) Through the invention, design, or arrangement of a technical object which seeks to solve an issue or problem; 2) Technologies that are aligned with existing political structures/relationships. Ultimately, technological artifacts can be examined as a site of power struggle and negotiations which take in society.

Since consumer-oriented 3D printers entered the market in the mid-2000s, the technology has been heralded as overwhelmingly positive, fostering innovation, business growth and enabling individuals to be more creative, engaged consumers. The technology may even have the potential to revolutionize the way that mass manufacturing takes place today. So it is interesting how this recent development has changed the conversation about the technology from one which positions 3D printing as the solution to current challenges and the catalyst for growth opportunities to a discussion about the potential hazards and risks of wide-scale, unregulated use of the technology. This is particularly interesting because the development of 3D printing has thrived as a result of peer-production and open source movements.

Despite this open source, freely shared approach to using, developing and improving upon 3D printing, the technology is at the center of a commercial industry, which has its owners, operators and consumers. The gatekeepers of the 3D printing industry and other related companies have been treading very carefully when faced with the prospect of organizations or individuals like Defense Distributed who seek to use specific resources for the production of 3D printed weaponry. Early in the course of the WikiWeapon project, Defense Distributed sought to raise funds on the crowd-sourcing platform Indiegogo. The organization had raised $2,000 of its $20,000 goal when Indiegogo notified Cody Wilson, one of the co-founders of Defense Distributed that it would be freezing the funds and returning the money that was already raised to contributors. Indiegogo cited that Defense Distributed had violated the platform’s terms of service. While Defense Distributed may have violated Indiegogo’s terms of service, there may have also been other reasons why the company sought to curtail WikiWeapon’s fundraising efforts. It it not my intention to speculate, but it is reasonable to consider that such a move by the crowdsourcing organization could have also been motivated by personal company values, liability protection, legal accordance and branding/marketing. Despite this obstacle, Defense Distributed managed to secure funding from other sources and investors via Bitcoin and PayPal. Then, in October 2012, Stratasys, the company from which Defense Distributed had been leasing its 3D printer, repossessed the machine, explaining that its printers would not be used for illegal purposes.

We are witnessing negotiations taking place around the way that 3D printing as a technology can be used- what is and is not legal, socially and morally acceptable is in flux. Questions have already risen around how 3D printed guns fit into the existing Gun Control Act, Undetectable Firearms Act and what the firearms licensing requirements set forth by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would be for designers and producers of 3D printed guns. The first significant legislative debate has already begun, with New York Congressman Steve Israel calling for a renewal of the ban on plastic guns under the Undetectable Firearms Act set to expire in December 2013.

The capabilities of 3D printing technology are still being worked out and it is difficult to predict what 3D printing will be able to do in 2, 4 or even 10 years time. As adoption of this technology increases and becomes mainstream, legal regulations around production and use of 3D printing become more relevant. As regulations and methods of governing the development and use of 3D printing move to the forefront, it is necessary to consider how this will affect the commons-based peer-production which facilitates the sharing of information about how the technology is constructed, what can be created with the technology and how to produce these objects. This will inevitably affect the user communities which have developed around 3D printing. Perhaps we must remember that even open source movements have their limitations. Thingiverse, the largest online repository of freely available 3D object designs took down all gun part object designs from the site at the end of December 2012. Defense Distributed responded to this by creating its own repository, DEFCAD, which now hosts a selection of firearm-related object design files. It appears that such limitations are yet to be determined.

References:

Winner, Langdon (1986). “Do artifacts have politics?’ in The Whale and The Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology,” University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Other media coverage on this topic:

Bilton, Nick (October 7, 2012). “Disruptions: With a 3-D Printer, Building a Gun With the Push of a Button.” The New York Times.

Hotz, Alexander (November 25, 2012). “3D ‘Wiki Weapon’ guns could go into testing by end of year, maker claims.” The Guardian. 

Wolverton II, Joe (November 27, 2012). “Wiki Weapon: Texas Co. May Offer Plans for Printing Guns at Home.” The New American. 

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