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As 3D Printed Guns Become Legally Available, The Fight for Gun Safety Goes Digital

This week may be incredibly consequential for national security. No, I’m not talking about the geopolitical skirmishes the White House has already pulled America into. On top of all those, there’s another policy set by the State Department that may result in even more guns flooding into communities across the country, guns that can’t be traced by local law enforcement and guns that can be manufactured anywhere that’s equipped with a 3D printer.

Say what? Here’s what you need to know about how the fight for gun violence prevention is going digital.

What’s a 3D printer, and how can it make a gun?

So what is 3D printing, exactly? Long story short, it’s additive manufacturing that makes physical, three-dimensional (3D) solid objects from digital files. The printer creates the object by shaping successive layers of material until the object specified from the 3D digital image is physically fully formed.

3D printing is already being used to produce a variety of items, from prosthetic arms to fighter jet parts. But in recent months, a more controversial aspect of 3D printing has reached the national spotlight thanks to Texas based “crypto-anarchist” Cody Wilson and his company, Defense Distributed. Five years ago, Wilson fired the first ever 3D printed gun. And if a recent State Department ruling is left in place, Wilson will be allowed to publicly publish instructions for others to 3D print their own guns beginning this Wednesday.

Why did the federal government flip, and how might 3D printed guns upend current gun laws?

During Barack Obama’s presidency, the federal government challenged Wilson’s attempts to grow the 3D printed gun industry, claiming it violates federal gun trafficking laws. Wilson sued, but the restriction on 3D printed guns had been holding up in court. Then in June, the Trump administration announced a settlement that resulted in the State Department lifting this restriction on 3D printed guns. As a result, Defense Distributed will go live with its template for “The Liberator” single-shot pistol this Wednesday. And going forward, Wilson wants to post templates for the AR-15 and other military-grade assault weapons that are commonly used in mass shootings like Las Vegas’ own 1 October.

This has gun safety advocates and many local law enforcement officials worried. Since these “ghost guns” can be made anywhere equipped with a 3D printer, no background check or gun permit is required. Though the cost of 3D printing a gun remains quite high, this rules change opens the door to anyone (regardless of whether that someone is a terrorist, convicted violent offender, or domestic abuser) who has the resources to circumvent legal gun restrictions to finally do so. And even though “The Liberator” will have a metal part in order to comply with the federal ban on fully plastic guns, this decision may provide an opening for future mass distribution of templates for 3D printed guns that can evade metal detectors and go completely unnoticed until they’re fired.

As Congress looks unlikely to do anything to challenge the Trump administration’s decision, this new gun fight has shifted to the states. Washington State filed a federal lawsuit earlier today seeking to stop Defense Distributed from publishing any templates for any 3D printed guns. Pennsylvania has already won a court-ordered injunction that will prevent Defense Distributed from making gun instructions available in that state, and New Jersey is now fighting in federal court for a similar state-level ban there. But unless Washington succeeds in getting a nationwide injunction and/or most states enact their own bans, most Americans will have access to 3D printed gun templates in about 36 hours.

So what now?
Photo by Andrew Davey

Considering Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s (R) record on gun violence, it’s unlikely he will sign Nevada onto Washington’s lawsuit. And unless the Nevada Legislature calls itself into special session this week, we may have to wait until at least 2019 before the state can update its own laws to contend with the new reality of 3D printed guns.

What does all of this ultimately mean? Basically, we have a vast new frontier when it comes to gun manufacturing, weapons technology, public policy, and the fight for gun violence prevention. Should the Trump administration proceed with its agreement with Defense Distributed to allow for online distribution of instructions to build one’s own guns, citizens and policymakers will eventually have to rethink how to regulate firearms. After all, what good is a requirement for background checks on gun purchases if anyone can build one’s own gun without having to step foot in a gun store?

Like it or not, the nation’s gun fight is going digital. Are we truly ready for this?

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