3D Printed Guns, Explained

Matthew Larosiere,

Release Date
January 13, 2021


Free Markets and Capitalism Regulations Tech

On November 12th 2019, a federal judge has struck down against an attempt to release downloadable gun files in the United States. It was declared that allowing access to this information violates the Administrative Procedure Act and the Constitution.

It has been echoed that such free access to untraceable blueprints could threaten world peace and national security.

However, it has also been argued that If blueprints are speech, then 3D files are speech too. That means that, according to the constitution we have today, the government can’t prohibit them.

So what is 3D printing exactly?

3D printing is a process where a computer-aided-design (CAD) is sent to a printer where it is produced in three dimensions out of plastic or resin. Matthew Larosiere, Director of Legal Policy Firearms Policy Coalition and Senior Contributor for Young Voices, explains what the future of 3D printing could mean for the gun industry.

Arthur C. Clarke famously once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
While 3-D printing isn’t magic, it certainly might seem like it.
3-D printing is a process where an object can be designed in a computer, and then that file is sent to a machine where it is effectively “printed” out, in three dimensions, out of plastic or resin.

When this technology became available to the average person, it changed everything. It’s allowed hobbyists and professionals to print out an enormous array of objects, all of which start as computer designs, which are then printed out in real space out of real materials.

But some people have raised concerns. What if some people wanted to print dangerous things? What if 3-D printers could be used to print weapons?

What if 3-D printers could be used to print guns? Is that possible? And what does it mean?

The 3-D printed gun debate isn’t new, it’s been around for years. And it turns out, printing out a gun is actually more complicated than it sounds.

It’s complicated physically.
It’s also complicated legally, at least in the United States.
The other thing about guns in the United States is that it’s actually not illegal to make them yourself. And 3-D printing doesn’t change that.

3-D printed guns are a little bit different, but for an unusual reason. See, anything 3-D printed comes from a computer file, usually a 3-D model that someone has designed. But that file has to be specially set up by the person who wants to do the printing, so that it’ll work on their particular printer. That means that, if someone sends the design for a gun to someone else, what they’re sending is not a physical product. It’s speech. And speech is protected by the 1st Amendment.
If blueprints and recipes are speech, then 3D files are speech too. That means that, according to the constitution we have today, the government can’t prohibit them.
So how do we regulate 3-D printed guns? What about criminals who might print them for nefarious purposes?
Under our current constitutional framework, regulating 3-D printed guns is just about impossible. The files are impossible to regulate, and regulating the printers themselves would destroy a budding industry before it even fully got off the ground.

The world might change. 3-D printing might advance to the point where 3-D printing guns might be easy, and simple. But in the world we live in right now, it doesn’t seem like that’s the case, nor will it be in the near future.
In the meantime, we should stop worrying, and enjoy the many amazing things 3-D printing has to offer.

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