In the wake of June’s fatal mass shooting in Orlando, Florida that killed 49 people in an LGBT nightclub, Democratic lawmakers set out to pass new measures to curb gun violence. Although polls showed the vast majority of Americans support these laws, four separate measures failed to generate bipartisan support in the Senate. As Democratic lawmakers develop new strategies to pass the slightest gun control measures, new technologies are revolutionizing how people across the world access deadly firearms.
In 2013, Cody Wilson, a self-described “crypto anarchist,” created the first 3-D printed gun, a single-shot plastic pistol known as “The Liberator.” Wilson started by creating a computer-aided design (CAD) file that held the blueprints for generating the gun with a 3-D printer. These printers create three-dimensional objects by applying a series of thermoplastic layers that slowly harden into a solid form. Alongside plans for his gun, Wilson started Defense Distributed—a website he describes as “Wikileaks for guns” designed to “collaboratively produce, publish, and distribute to the public without charge information and knowledge related to the digital manufacture of arms.” But after his CAD file was shared over 100,00 times online, the U.S. State Department took down the file, igniting a debate that involves both the First and Second Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
3-D printed guns pose multiple threats. They are made of plastic so they can slip through metal detectors and have no serial numbers, so they’re impossible to trace back to their owners. “What happens when these new, untraceable and undetectable guns wind up in the wrong hands, or easily slip through metal detectors at airports?” Brady Center President Dan Gross asked in an amicus brief in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. “As we have already seen, preventing those bent on violence from getting their hands on guns is a matter of national security.”
While the first 3-D printed guns were made with thermoplastics which tend to crack after one shot, recently, metal laser printing technology has been used to produce 3-D printed guns that can fire thousands of rounds and are practically indistinguishable from commercially-produced firearms. 3-D printed guns also pose a major threat internationally, where in many countries gun laws are much stricter than in the U.S. Recently, in Australia, where guns are banned, police officers raided a suspected methamphetamine lab where the drug dealers had a 3-D printed gun.
Currently, Wilson’s case sits before the U.S Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas where his lawyers insist that stopping his ability to distribute the Liberator’s CAD file violates his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. “The instructions are speech,” Gene Policinski, the senior vice president of the First Amendment Center. “This is opening an entirely new area of consideration. This is really something very new. It’s tough to really assess what directions the courts will go with it.” But the State Department sees things differently. “The issue isn’t domestic free speech,” a U.S. Department of State Official, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s about protecting U.S. national security by preventing unauthorized foreign access to U.S. defense articles and potentially sensitive defense manufacturing technologies that could be used by terrorists or other bad actors to harm Americans, including our troops serving overseas.”
Although the U.S Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in the Wilson case will impact the legalities of 3-D printed guns stateside, new laws may do little to curb the spread of these easily-printed firearms. While lawmakers in Washington, D.C. fight tooth-and-nail for laws to expand background checks and keep people on terrorist watch lists from getting guns, these efforts may be completely in vain when people can print a gun in the comfort of their own homes. With 21-st century technology soon coming to the forefront of the gun debate, lawmakers should focus on arming themselves with modern legal tools to combat gun violence in the information age.