Despite politicians lining up to regulate 3D printed guns, and a new directive from the U.S. State Department arguing that disseminating 3D files for such weapons may violate weapons export rules, some think that it may all be much ado about nothing.
On Thursday, Forbes reported, the State Department demanded that Defense Distributed, a nonprofit dedicated to creating 3D printed guns, take down a set of files that theoretically enable anyone to print their own firearm.
"The government says it wants to review the files for compliance with arms export control laws known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations," Forbes wrote. "By uploading the weapons files to the Internet and allowing them to be downloaded abroad, the letter implies [Defense Distributed] may have violated those export controls."
That federal government action came a day after Democratic California state Sen. Leland Yee introduced legislation that would ban the technology used to create 3D printed guns, and earlier action by Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) that sought to restrict the manufacture of such weapons.
Earlier this month, word came out that Defense Distributed had successfully fired the Liberator, perhaps the first-ever fully-3D printed gun. And that news came on top of mounting evidence that despite efforts to slow the creation of this kind of weapon, it may well be too late.
Why worries about 3D-printed guns are 'overblown'
Despite the increasingly alarmed tone of government response to the latest developments in the race to create 3D printed firearms, there are those who think that the dangers posed by such weapons hardly warrant such worry. And surprisingly, one of the most skeptical voices of all is an ardent anti-gun violence advocate.
"In terms of the implications for guns laws, we think it's incredibly overblown," said Ladd Everitt, director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "Could someone considering a terrorist (or criminal) act buy a 3D printer, download the files, experiment [with them] and go through the full process to make one gun, not knowing how many times it will fire? Probably not."
Everitt argued that anyone intending a mass shooting can acquire a gun in a matter of minutes and probably doesn't care too much about whether their purchase is tracked because they're usually suicidal or expect to get caught. But he also said that people have been coming up with ways to make guns at home for quite some time, and that even so, "these guns never turn up in crimes because the fact is, it's so damn easy to get guns."
For Cody Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed, the goal of creating working 3D-printed guns isn't to give people efficient manufacture of weapons. He acknowledges that using 3D printers to make guns "is the most ridiculous way of making a gun part [because] it's so brittle, so expensive, and so impractical."
For Wilson, though, the issue isn't the effectiveness of 3D printed guns; it's whether 3D printing technology can be expressed as a democratic technology. And there's little doubt that for a techno-libertarian regularly in the public eye over the last few months, all the recent political and legislative activity is only helping that cause.
Wilson told CNET that he sees the odds of himself "ending up in a cage" growing daily as the national rhetoric against 3D-printed guns escalates. But he's clearly pleased that he's managed to help inspire exactly the kind of punitive action by politicians and government officials that he's been warning the public about. "I see it as a golden opportunity," he said. "This is a real big flash point for a conversation," Wilson said.
Indeed, Wilson said he believes that the State Department's move to shut down the online availability of 3D gun files has as much to do with international pressure on the U.S. government as with internal politics. "I've known for over a month that Australia...has been trying to do their damnedest to get the [U.S.] feds to shut us down."
Specifically, the State Department told Defense Distributed that its posting online of digital files for making 3D-printed guns constituted a possible violation of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and that until it hears otherwise, Defense Distributed should remove a set of CAD files for printing a gun, silencers, sights, and other pieces.
But Wilson said that although he has complied with the State Department's demands, Defense Distributed is exempt because it's a nonprofit and because the organization is releasing the files into the public domain.
In the meantime, the 3D printing industry itself has been doing its best to stay out of the growing controversy. In recent months and years, the technology has been gaining public acceptance and a great deal of interest from investors and other industries; last week, for instance, office supplies giant Staples said it would begin selling the Cube 3D printer. And it's hard to argue that the public conversation over 3D printed guns is anything but a distraction for an industry that is trying to upend traditional manufacturing.
In a statement, 3D Systems, the largest company in the industry, told CNET that it recognizes the "unintended uses of this game-changing technology and take seriously our responsibility as industry leaders to work with legislators to educate and influence them in the good, the bad, and the unintended. We are not a law enforcement agency and cannot prevent someone from shooting a 3D printed gun any more than an automaker can prevent a drunk driver from taking the wheel, but are committed to doing everything that is creative, innovative, and responsible, even if it means some restrictions."
Critics of 3D printed guns worry that criminals can quickly make guns in private, easily conceal them, and evade metal detectors. And to be fair, we may someday live in that world. But the reality is that today, and for the foreseeable future, such guns require high-end equipment, and even those guns are far from reliable, or sturdy. People have every right to worry about unseen and undetectable guns, but we're a long way from using a MakerBot to go on a shooting spree.