October 02, 2012      

At first glance you?d swear it?s a put-on or an SNL skit or a trailer from a Ridley Scott flick: a guy recording himself for a YouTube video calmly talking about gunsmithing with a 3D printer.

Even the odd jump cuts in the video seem to hint that he must have burst out laughing several times, caught himself, and then started recording again when his deadpan facial expression returned.

cody wilson

Beneath his video is the URL printablegun.com, a site that is dedicated to sharing open-source blueprints for 3-D printed guns, and trumpets: ?Spread the word: Home of the Wiki Weapon. A collaborative project to create freely available plans for 3D printable guns.?

Even that seems a bit much, humorous even, but probably not at all to the authorities who have to monitor and then check out each and every instance of scary YouTube braggadocio. Not to mention those that might have deadly consequences.

Taking the gunsmith at face value

3D printing has produced a titanium jaw for a French dental patient and metal-hard shapes from plastic resins, so it?s not such a great leap to imagine an AK-47 popping out of someone?s printer.

3D printers can reproduce most anything, even themselves. So let?s say that the man from printableguns.com is in earnest. What then?

The imagination lets loose all sorts of horrors in contemplation of such an eventuality. For example, illicit arms dealers may not need to ship crates of weapons to buyers; they may only need to ship a single 3D printer. Upon arrival at its destination, the 3D printer replicates itself and then uses the replicants to manufacture firearms in quantity. With over 600 million small arms in the world that yearly kill some 300,000 humans, such a capability is unacceptable.

The YouTube performer in question is Cody Wilson, director of Defense Distributed, who calmly trots out his plan and rationale for building weapons on a 3D printer. Needless to say, he got lots of attention very fast.

See for yourself:

GUARDIAN: Last week, Wiki Weapon, a project to create the first fully printable plastic gun received the $20,000 in funding it needed to get off the ground.

The project’s goal is not to develop and sell a working gun, but rather to create an open-source schematic (or blueprint) that individuals could download and use to print their own weapons at home.

The technology that makes this possible is 3D printing, a process during which plastic resin is deposited layer by layer to create a three dimensional object. In the past few years 3D printers have become increasingly affordable, and just last week the first two retail stores selling 3D printers opened in the United States with models ranging from $600 to $2,199.

Spearheading the Wiki Weapon project is Cody Wilson, a second-year law student at the University of Texas. After brainstorming the concept with a friend, Wilson assembled a group of engineers, programmers and designers to develop the printable firearm. Initially the collective, which calls itself Defense

Crowdsourcing production capacity

Distributed, tried to crowd-source start-up capital on the funding website Indiegogo, but after the project began receiving media attention, Indiegogo froze the group’s account and refused to hand over approximately $2,000 that Defense Distributed had raised.

Indiegogo asserted that the group violated company policy, claiming that the project is related to the sale of firearms. But, as Wilson is quick to point out, Wiki Weapon isn’t a for-profit venture and doesn’t intend to ever sell tangible firearms.

The group’s aim is simply to publish a schematic, which would be available online for anyone free of charge.

Despite this hiccup, Defense Distributed still managed to raise the money it needed from donors by using the direct deposit platform Bitcoin. However, if what happened with Indiegogo is any indication, the project will likely face more legal hurdles in the future.

Since 3D printing technology is so new, the legality of the gun publication is still somewhat opaque.

According to Dave Kopel, the research director of the Independence Institute, it is legal to create pistols, revolvers and rifles at home, although some states are stricter than others. As long as an inventor isn’t selling, sharing or trading the weapon, under federal law, a license isn’t necessary. Homemade creations also don’t need to be registered with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and are legal for use by the individual who created the weapon.

If a fully functional plastic Wiki Weapon is printed, it may be illegal upon creation thanks to an obscure law from the late 1980s. In 1988, Congress passed the Undetectable Firearms Act after the Glock company provoked controversy by selling firearms made with plastic polymers.

The technique, which was revolutionary at the time but is common in the industry today, alarmed many gun control advocates who were concerned that plastic guns wouldn’t register in airport x-ray machines.

“I haven’t felt any real heat yet, but I think it’s very possible the project might happen outside of America or the files might be hosted outside of America,” said Wilson who is cognizant of the statute. “The point of manufacture might also have to be outside of the United States.”

Of course, even if a plastic gun is illegal, it would be incredibly easy to print if a schematic were available. Under US law there’s nothing illegal about creating or sharing a schematic for a weapon unless that weapon is copyrighted or patented.

The Anarchists Cookbook and nuclear bomb schematics are available online
According to Peter Swire, an internet law professor at Ohio State University, for the moment 3D printing is just another tool for hobbyists.

“What’s important here is the ability to turn software into a gun anywhere in the world,” said Swire. “I think the big question is how many 3D printers are we going to have? The more 3D printers the more gun factories there are.”

“In the future no one is going to be able to decide who has a gun but you,” Wilson said. “This is a project that intends to help subvert older hierarchies and these older modes of thinking.”

By virtue of his legal training, Wilson is the de facto in-house lawyer for the Wiki Weapon project, and he freely admits that he’s not entirely sure if the weapon he’s creating is legal. But for him, that’s part of the project’s novelty.

“This project could very well change the way we think about gun control and consumption,” Defense Distributed states in the “manifesto” published on its website.

“How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the internet? Let’s find out.”

Enter the repo boys

WIRED: Cody Wilson planned in the coming weeks to make and test a 3-D printed pistol. Now those plans have been put on hold as desktop-manufacturing company Stratasys pulled the lease on a printer rented out for Wiki Weapon and even sent a team to seize the printer from Wilson?s home.

?They came for it straight up,? Wilson tells Danger Room [Wired]. ?I didn?t even have it out of the box.?

3d printer mojo

Less than a week after receiving the printer, Wilson received an e-mail from Stratasys: The company wanted its printer returned.

Wilson wrote back, and said he believed using the printer to manufacture a firearm would not break federal laws regarding at-home weapons manufacturing. For one, the gun wouldn?t be for sale. Wilson added that he didn?t have a firearms manufacturer?s license.

Stratasys?s legal counsel wrote back: ?It is the policy of Stratasys not to knowingly allow its printers to be used for illegal purposes. Therefore, please be advised that your lease of the Stratasys uPrint SE is cancelled at this time and Stratasys is making arrangements to pick up the printer,? stated the letter, which Wilson posted to Defense Distributed?s website.

The next day, contractors hired by the company arrived at Wilson?s apartment in an Enterprise rental van and took the printer.

Of course, there are not enough repo boys or rental vans in the world to haul away the coming cascade of 3D printers. What next?