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 . Beyond its applications in design and prototyping, it can produce final products in a customized and cost-effective fashion, effectively “democratizing manufacturing” . Early applications of AM have shown significant social benefit; take for example the ability to increase access to prosthetic limbs . 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.
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” . Licensed firearm manufacturers are required to stamp each product with a serial number, known as a FFL, which can be traced by the ATF . Anytime a FFL changes hands, a background check is required to permit the sale . 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 . 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” .
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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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)
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