Does Additive Manufacturing Pose a Threat to Gun Control?

The rise of Additive Manufacturing has been lauded as the next industrial revolution for the many efficiencies that it delivers over traditional manufacturing processes. However, increased access to and sophistication of AM technology also presents potential dangers, including interference with the ability of the ATF to regulate the production and distribution of firearms.

The rise of Additive Manufacturing (AM) has been lauded as the next industrial revolution for the many efficiencies that it delivers over traditional manufacturing processes [1]. Beyond its applications in design and prototyping, it can produce final products in a customized and cost-effective fashion, effectively “democratizing manufacturing” [1]. Early applications of AM have shown significant social benefit; take for example the ability to increase access to prosthetic limbs [2]. However, increased access to and sophistication of AM technology also presents potential dangers, with perhaps the most marked example being the production of firearms. In the United States, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is the law enforcement agency which is ultimately responsible for overseeing the implementation of federal law related to firearms. Innovations in AM pose a significant threat to ATF’s ability to regulate production and distribution of guns, and therefore create an urgent need for organizational learning and process improvement within this government agency to control the proliferation of this technology and protect against harmful outcomes.

Plastic components of a firearm, produced via AM [4].
The megatrend of AM is important to the federal government’s management of process improvement because it has added significant complexity to their regulatory duties and, importantly, undermined the assumptions underlying ATF’s current processes. Today, the process for controlling the distribution of firearms relies on the idea that firearms are centrally supplied and that guns can therefore “be controlled at their source through a system of licensing, record keeping, and pre-distribution background checks” [3]. Licensed firearm manufacturers are required to stamp each product with a serial number, known as a FFL, which can be traced by the ATF [3]. Anytime a FFL changes hands, a background check is required to permit the sale [3]. In short, current regulatory processes assume that a firearm is produced, and therefore made traceable throughout the distribution system, by a licensed manufacturer. In reality, AM makes production accessible to individuals. Entrants such as Defense Distributed (a non-profit pro-gun rights organization) have not only demonstrated an ability to produce functional firearms via 3D printing, but have shared designs online which have been downloaded, and can be replicated, by thousands of others [1]. This shifting landscape requires agility on the part of ATF to continue to deliver on its duty as an agency, otherwise, “as the power of production passes from industry to consumer…3D printers will render current firearm regulations obsolete” [3].

An assembled gun, produced via AM [1].
In the short- to medium-term, the ATF (together with other agencies with related remits) is focused on understanding potential applications of AM and attempting to apply existing regulations to emerging contexts. For example, when Defense Distributed posted design files online, the State Department required the files be removed for potential violation of a restriction on exporting technical weapon data [2]. The debate continues as to how existing regulations apply in this new age, though, and in many cases, they prove easy to bypass. Take for example the fact that, to satisfy the Undetectable Firearms Act requirement that firearms set off metal detectors, Defense Distributed simply included a small piece of steel in the otherwise plastic handgun they produced [2]. The fragility of current regulations in the context of this new technology is clear; it will be critical for ATF to make broader changes over the coming years to ensure that the explosion of AM does not eclipse the government’s ability to regulate it.

Setting aside political hurdles, one potential path that should be explored is the imposition of penalties for parties who produce firearms via AM. We can already see examples of such approaches internationally; in New South Wales, Australia, an individual in possession of digital designs for a AM firearm is subject to the same maximum prison sentence as one in possession of an illegal weapon [4]. But more sustainable solutions might require the introduction of control and tracking mechanisms at the component steps of AM firearms production, such as the printer itself, the design, or raw materials such as gunpowder [1]. What is clear is that the federal government, and in particular, the ATF, cannot count on current regulations to flex in response to advancing technologies. The organization as a whole must lean into learning about AM and must create better internal structures that enable them to implement more rapid process improvement on a go-forward basis.

While the topic of gun control is complex and nuanced, the application of Additive Manufacturing for firearm production encapsulates a more generalizable challenge: while technological innovations carry tremendous potential for positive social application, their full range of potential uses are often unpredictable. How can society maximize the positive potential of new technologies and avoid putting a limit on innovation through broad regulation, while also balancing the need for protection against harmful applications by bad actors? (787)

 

 

Sources:

[1] Pierrakakis K., Kandias M., Gkritzali C.D., Gritzalis D. (2014). 3D PRINTING AND ITS REGULATION DYNAMICS: THE WORLD IN FRONT OF A PARADIGM SHIFT. Proc. of the 6th International Conference on Information Law and Ethics, Law Library Publications. Retrieved from: https://www.infosec.aueb.gr/Publications/ICIL-2014%203D%20Printing.pdf

[2] Masero, A. M. (2014). I CAME, ITAR, I CONQUERED: THE INTERNATIONAL TRAFFIC IN ARMS REGULATIONS, 3D-PRINTED FIREARMS, AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT. Boston College.Law School.Boston College Law Review, 55(4), 1291-1328. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1664536716?accountid=11311

[3] Peter Jensen-Haxel. (2012). 3D PRINTERS, OBSOLETE FIREARM SUPPLY CONTROLS, AND THE RIGHT TO BUILD SELF-DEFENSE WEAPONS UNDER HELLER. Golden Gate University Law Review, 42, 447-661. Retrieved from: https://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=2064&context=ggulrev

[4] Sampson, B. (2015). GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES. Professional Engineering28(12), 7. Retrieved from http://ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=111931605&site=ehost-live&scope=site

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13 thoughts on “Does Additive Manufacturing Pose a Threat to Gun Control?

  1. Wow! This is a terrifying article. While 3D printing certainly brings plenty of benefits to society, I would be hesitant to say that AM firearms brings more positives than negatives. It would be very difficult to keep track of who is printing weapons, and even harder to keep track of them. What makes it worse is that they can be printed out of materials that wouldn’t be caught by metal detectors! As such, I would strongly support regulating this aspect of additive manufacturing, with laws similar to what Australia posed.

  2. Agreed with Michael – very terrifying indeed, but something that we all need to grapple with, especially in the larger discussion of gun control in the US. I question whether imposing regulations on the sale of 3D printers will actually do anything to curb this issue. Since so much potential good can come from 3D printers, I think that this regulation could stifle innovation and create even higher barriers to entry for new designs. I also lean towards punishing owners of these guns to the full extent of the law – but I’m not naive enough to think that would be enough.

  3. This is a subject that haunts me ever since the news of Defense Distributed 3D printing a gun came out in August. In my mind, this is a clear case of an area in America where not only is the current regulatory framework ill- equipped to handle this issue as you mentioned, but also where the institutional set-up will not lead to successful creation of new laws that actually regulate this in a rational manner. There are two key reasons for this. One, as we have seen with Amsterdam and Airbnb or San Francisco and Uber, is that forward looking regulation on technology requires the government to collaborate with the proponents of the technology to co-build this regulation. Only in this fashion do you get regulations that aren’t reactionary, that are sustainable and that have enough buy-in for all sides. In this case, given the highly politicized nature of gun regulation in America, it is unlikely that you’ll ever manage a successful partnership between regulators, gun proponents like the NRA and opponents like EveryTown for Safety ever come into the same room to talk about common sense future gun control. Second, the distributed nature of the internet has made existing evils like child pornography already impossible to tackle. No matter in how many spaces the government can take down distribution of 3D printed gun designs, the internet has a hydra like quality in that blocked content always finds its way to another part of the web. So I am extremely pessimistic about our ability to proactively react to this burgeoning concern in any constructive fashion.

  4. I find this an alarming aspect of AM since it is so hard to police. This seems like a very dangerous situation as a 3D printing becomes more prevalent in the hands of consumers. With the rise in mass shootings, access to weapons has been a heated topic of discussion. This new technology truly throws a wrench in the discussions that we’ve been having as a society and will require the collaboration of our best minds and enforcement agencies to ensure that harm does not come to the innocent.

  5. To Ratnika’s point about engaging other stakeholders in the firearm industry in this discussion, I wonder what the NRA’s take on the issue would be. While they’re certainly not advocates of gun control, their corporate members are companies that profit off of selling guns, not 3D printer manufacturers. Would they have a vested interest in preventing the spread of 3D-printed guns, and might they be willing to come to the table on that premise? They’re an unlikely ally, but competitive pressures may make for strange alliances.

  6. Dear Fake Billy,

    I agree this is a fascinating writeup, and definitely smarter than something Real Billy could create. I am scared about this and worry that the punitive approach may not be enough — then again, how else are other bad creations like this managed? Difficulty to access, social norms, and sort of “small” policing seems to be the way we avoid other perils. I also wonder if the best approach is to make sure these types of models cannot get to consumers easily — that there is still some barrier to entry that helps protect us.

  7. Dear Fake Billy,

    I’m also terrified about this idea. We already face so many challenges around the regulation of firearms in this country in both the primary and secondary market. Taking this one step further and allowing anyone with a 3d printer to manufacture their own firearm and likely going undetected is very scary. I’d love to say let’s just make this illegal and it won’t happen but unfortunately I believe that won’t be entirely effective. At the same time I worry about working with regulators and the NRA to try and regulate this as it introduces a possibly very slippery slope. So in short, I’m scared. Thanks!

  8. Thank you for a great, but scary, article! I fully share your worries about gun control in a world with additive manufacturing. So far we have, luckily, not seen any larger issues, but it is already possible to “print” a gun that can be used to fire several shots. The main issue here is that it will be very difficult to control and regulate, there are already blueprints for guns circulating on the internet, and anyone can buy or build from scratch, a 3D printer. I believe the only way to try to avoid this issue is to increasingly educate, and further control, the gun market in general – if no one carries a gun, no one else will have a strong enough incentive to get one. This is however a difficult path, and I’m not sure that it will be enough to solve the issue. Overall, I can only echo GSGoldstein above – I’m scared!

  9. Thank you for the great article. This is truly a terrifying issue – the ATF has enough trouble regulating gun control and usage today. The ability for 3D printers to print plastic, functional guns that can avoid metal detection is scary. I think that this is a case where regulation needs to be used to enable a new technology to provide social benefit while also limiting the impact of potential bad actors. It was good that the State Department required that the files be taken down. I think that the most impactful approaches will be to limit the distribution of blueprints to make these weapons and to somehow limit the ability of the machines to print these items. Once people get access to the machine, it is difficult to police what they use it to produce.

  10. The development of 3-D printed guns is indeed extremely alarming and I share Ratnika’s concerns about the US government’s ability to address the issue. The political climate makes it almost impossible to pass any sort of gun control, but even the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia noted that “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.” (www.cato.org/publications/commentary/still-limits-second-amendment). It often seems that even the most limited and sensible gun control measures fail to gain traction in the US, but I’m intrigued by Trey’s suggestion that the NRA and gun makers could make for an unlikely ally in the fight given their business interests.

    Another parallel approach would be to ensure ammunition remain extremely tightly controlled, limiting the ability of 3-D gun owners to buy bullets. Chris Rock has a great take on the issue of “bullet control” that is worth watching (www.youtube.com/watch?v=gYZLKqGhSZs).

  11. Gossip Girl Here. The impact of this issue is truly bone-chilling and not one I had ever considered – appreciate you playing devils advocate and pointing out one of the major concerns about the rapid expansion of additive manufacturing. You mention that the US should seek to find “more sustainable” ways of dealing with the issue than the example from Australia, but I actually think something of this severity may be necessary in order to really prevent this from happening. I think that detailed blueprints of a machine gun show clear intent to produce an illegal weapon, and given the severity of the potential impact this should be a highly punishable offense. I know that gun control issues are a very hot topic given the increase in mass shootings over the past few years, but the feasibility of creating weaponry outside of a regulated environment would remove yet another barrier to the wrong people accessing guns. I think this is a clear reason not to ever push the commercialization of 3D-printers, but should also require very stringent monitoring for companies that are adapting this technology.

  12. This is a great piece.
    I too am pessimistic about the US government’s ability to introduce any material regulations in this space – the technology has already been loosed on the world, and now we must suffer the consequences. While additive manufacturing brings many benefits as showcased in other articles here, people will always find ways to use benevolent tools for evil (the internet for child pornography, as Ratnika mentioned, or Facebook for live-streaming murders and hate crimes). I don’t believe the government will be able to collaborate with stakeholders on either side of the aisle sufficiently to create meaningful regulation, and am sadly resigned to a world where anyone with enough funds can print their own undetectable firearm.

  13. Supposing that we cannot prevent these blueprints from eventually finding their way onto the internet (as Ratnika mentions above), is there a way that we can get the manufacturers of 3D Printers to pre-program their devices to make fully-formed guns? I guess, the makers of these devices could just easily print the parts in pieces and then self-assemble, but I imagine that may deter some people, and as we’ve seen with gun violence, small barriers to gun access significantly reduce fatal violence. So basically, I am wondering what small, incremental steps we can take – with or without groups like the NRA – to make access to 3D-printed guns more difficult.

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