Three-dimensional printed plastic gun parts are getting a lot of headlines these days. And like most conversations that involve guns, people are quick to bring up gun-control laws. Most of those people are missing the points.
Some see printed guns as a threat: if any one can print a firearm in their basement, what’s keeping terrorists and whackos from doing it? Others see printing guns as an expression of freedom: I’m entitled to manufacture guns for my own personal use, and therefore it’s none of the government’s damn business what I do in my basement.
At the center of the debate is a group called Defense Distributed—a loose collective of engineers, designers, and a lawyer prototyping plastic firearms components with a 3D printer. In a project called Wiki Weapon, they’ve been experimenting with plans of a printed lower receiver for an AR-15 downloaded from the website Thingiverse.
On an AR carbine, the only component regulated by the federal government is the lower receiver. Which is the part
with the serial number on it. Which is why the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tracks it. Which is exactly the reason Defense Distributed is printing it.
Cody Wilson is the director of Defense Distributed, which is now 501(c)(3) pending organization. A second-year law student at the University of Texas at Austin, Wilson has organized more than dozen people to help with his project. From software gurus in Florida and Kansas to an engineer in Amsterdam, support has come from high and low alike.
“We get lots of cheerleading from Russia. Guys saying, ‘go, go!’ You can tell they want their guns back,’” Wilson says. “And we get a lot of hate coming from Germany and the UK.”
In September, Wilson was invited to speak at a technology conference in the UK. When he talked about his project, the crowd disapproved. Ten days later, the company he was leasing his 3D printer from, Stratasys, confiscated the printer, citing a lack of federal firearms license.
“It is the policy of Stratasys not to knowingly allow its printers to be used for illegal purposes,” the company’s legal counsel wrote to Wilson. “However, we do not intend to engage in a legal debate with you.”
As per the Gun Control Act of 1968, anyone who manufactures or sells guns or ammunition needs an FFL. But you don’t need a FFL to produce firearms for your own use. There’s also nothing in the law that says it’s illegal to freely distribute firearm schematics over the Internet. Defense Distributed never intended to sell its products. For what it wants to do, Defense Distributed doesn’t technically need an FFL—though Wilson applied for a Type 3 and Type 7 license about two months ago.