Would a 3D-printed gun really be legal?

The quickly advancing technology raises new legal questions, experts say

Defense Distributed, the pro-gun nonprofit working to make 3D-printable gun designs freely available to everyone on the Internet, recently inched one step closer toward achieving that goal. The Austin, Texas-based group last week was granted a federal firearms license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"I can now sell the things we make, and am before the law a manufacturer, not a private citizen with regard to these items," said Cody Wilson, the group's young CEO, a self-described "crypto-anarchist" who is also a law student at the University of Texas.

So far, Defense Distributed has only succeeded in producing gun parts, such as a lower receiver for an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and a magazine for an AK-47, not entire guns. But its designs and prototypes have gained a considerable following: To date, its files have been downloaded more than 400,000 times.

Defense Distributed's ongoing efforts in the 3D printing space, however, highlight numerous legal and legislative issues that may need to be rethought as the technology picks up steam.

"This whole issue could obliterate, or at least undermine, the effective regulation of firearms possession," said Mary Fan, a law professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Some vexing questions relate specifically to Defense Distributed's license. What the group holds now allows for the manufacture of firearms regulated by the federal Gun Control Act (GCA), which includes most handguns, shotguns and rifles. However, some of the more powerful firearms that the group has been associated with, such as non-sporting semi-automatic weapons and machine guns, are governed instead by the National Firearms Act (NFA).

Under the current laws, any non-licensed person can make a GCA firearm for personal use as long as it is not for sale. The making of an NFA-regulated firearm, on the other hand, requires a tax payment and approval by the government. Defense Distributed currently does not have that type of approval.

The average person accessing Defense Distributed's gun designs probably would not have NFA approval either. But even the less restrictive GCA, which was enacted back in 1968, raises questions in the context of 3D printing.

"These exemptions for making firearms were created long before even the dream of 3D printers," the University of Washington's Fan said.

"Currently there are no legal implications" to making your own 3D-printed weapons, said Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA. "This is a case where the technology could quickly outpace the law."

But changing laws to accommodate the emerging technology would be tricky. "Do we tweak the existing gun laws, regulate the 3D printers themselves, or the new firearms that are made with them?" Fan said.

Another approach, however unlikely, might be to simply make it illegal for people to build their own firearms, Winkler said.

3D printing technology is advancing. The topic even attracted attention at this year's South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin. The technology conference's opening keynote was delivered by Bre Pettis, CEO of 3D printing company MakerBot, which offers units both for copying existing 3D objects and for printing models designed with computer software. MakieLab, a 3D toy printing company, was also present at the show.

The technology is still developing, with the units carrying a price tag often in the thousands of dollars. Those barriers notwithstanding, some worry that Defense Distributed's work could make it easier for guns to fall into the wrong people's hands.

"Teenagers, people convicted of felonies or who have drug and alcohol problems, and criminal enterprises ... This is a step in the wrong direction if it makes guns more available to them," said John Donohue, a professor of law at Stanford.

In particular, "troubled teenagers could see this as the next 'cool thing,'" he said.

Until the technology is perfected and becomes more widely available, it will probably only appeal to a small subset of the most vigorous gun enthusiasts, "but over time it could become a common way to make your own firearm," UCLA's Winkler said.

On the legislative side, political action on 3D gun printing from either Congress or the Obama administration probably won't happen any time soon, experts say. But Washington needs to get on top of the issue before the technology becomes widespread, Winkler said.

Others say that there probably won't be any legislative action until there is a tragedy involving 3D-printed guns.

"I doubt we'll see any major federal initiatives until something goes wrong," Stanford's Donohue said.

Legislators may have enough on their plates already. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has been pushing for an assault weapons ban that would prohibit the sale and manufacture of 157 different military-style assault weapons, though on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that measure would not be included in an upcoming gun bill.

Defense Distributed opposes Feinstein's efforts and has been following them closely. The group even named its 3D-printed AK-47 magazine the 'Feinstein AK Mag.' Feinstein could not be reached for comment on this story.

However, the gun-control debate as a whole is likely to dwarf the issue of 3D-printed guns. With more than 2 million background checks conducted each month for traditional gun sales, said UCLA's Winkler, "individually produced firearms do not make a big dent in America's stock of guns."

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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