Download. Print. Load. Fire. Should it be this easy to obtain a functioning firearm?
Defense Distributed, a Texas-based non-profit dedicated to “the benefits of the American rifleman”, thinks so. Founded in 2012 by Chris Wilson, then a law student at the University of Texas, Defense Distributed topped headlines in 2013 when it publicly released the designs for an operational 3D-printable pistol dubbed “the Liberator”. A lawsuit filed by the US State Department forced the designs to be taken down two days later, but not before over 100,000 downloads irrevocably distributed it across the internet. To many, Defense Distributed (and Wilson specifically) was wildly irresponsible and dangerous. Others saw Defense Distributed as a noble protector of civil liberties in America. In either case, it highlighted that new innovations were leading society towards uncharted territory.
Defense Distributed’s organizational objectives differ from those of a corporation, but several aspects of additive manufacturing that appeal to profit-seeking firms also influenced Defense Distributed’s choices. Fundamentally, additive manufacturing provides the ability to quickly iterate on product design, enabling a single machine to produce a wide array of products with minimal switching costs. Meanwhile, by eliminating the need for manufacturing facilities and assembly lines, it dramatically lowers the capital expenditures required, which in turn makes it feasible to have machines geographically dispersed. These attributes often lead to additive manufacturing being utilized for rapid prototyping, personalized products, or on-site production. In Defense Distributed’s case, it enables users to inexpensively produce firearms of varying designs at a location of their choosing.
Simultaneous with the development of the “Liberator”, Defense Distributed had established an opensource database of weapons designs called DEFCAD. Thus, they leveraged the power of open innovation as a multiplier to additive manufacturing. Ongoing legal issues have remained an issue, though a settlement this summer nearly re-authorized design releases. Defense Distributed also expanded to computer numerical control (CNC) machining and sells the “Ghost Gunner 2” which produces the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. CNC machining is similar to 3D printing in that an individual unit is produced based on an input design, though it is a subtractive rather than additive method. Defense Distributed is able to continue selling the “Ghost Gunner 2” despite the recent legal issues impacting other aspects of its business.
It is an interesting, if perhaps uncomfortable, thought experiment to consider “What should the management of Defense Distributed do to capitalize on additive manufacturing in the future?”. To a large extent, this will be dictated by the result of ongoing legal disputes. Irrespective of that outcome, the more relevant question is what should be the reaction of society and government? On a micro level, that requires considering the implications of this individual case. Is it, for example, an infringement upon the free speech rights of Defense Distributed to block the distribution of designs on the internet as they and co-petitioners argue? And if there is some impingement of speech, might that be justified to prevent public harm? Interestingly, even President Trump opined this summer that public distribution of 3D-printed firearms “doesn’t seem to make much sense”.
More broadly, what other unforeseen consequences might emerge from the proliferation of additive manufacturing? Are there risks to intellectual property protections or to public safety? Do we need new regulatory structures to account for cross-border transfers? Falling prices will enable more individuals to have the ability to produce an ever-wider array of items. This dynamic could generate creativity and dynamism akin to what occurred in scholarship after the proliferation of the printing press. However, the proliferation of production makes regulation difficult and can lead to abuses. Embracing innovation is good, but it is important that we do so thoughtfully and with awareness of potential risks.
 Greenberg, Andy. “3D-Printed Gun’s Blueprints Downloaded 100,000 Times In Two Days”. Forbes. Retrieved 12 November 2018.
 D. Spaeth. 3D printing is changing the face of multiple industries. ECN: Electronic Component News 61, no. 9 (October 2017): 21–23.
 Limer, Eric (December 21, 2012). “There’s a New Site Just for 3D-Printed Gun Designs”. Gizmodo. Retrieved 12 November 2018.
 Greenberg, Andy. “The $1200 Machine That Lets Anyone Make a Metal Gun at Home”. Wired. Retrieved 12 November 2018.
 Trump, D. [realDonaldTrump]. (2018, July 31). I am looking into 3-D plastic guns being sold to the public. Already spoke to the NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense! [Tweet]. Retrieved 12 November 2018