Design a 3D-Printable Gun, Lose Your 3D Printer

3D Printing is without a doubt one of the most intriguing emerging technologies--just check out our coverage of the recent Maker Faire in New York--and it was only a matter of time before the (well, any) new technology clashed with current laws and ideals.

Second-year law student Cody Wilson runs a site called Defense Distributed whose purpose is to develop designs for 3D-printable guns called “Wiki Weapons”--which are pistols that would be fully 3D-printable, unlike the partially printed AR-15 pictured above. After apparently raising the $20,000 his group needed for the project, Wilson leased a uPrint SE 3D printer from Stratasys to test out Defense Dist’s designs.

After becoming aware of Wilson’s activities, Stratasys’ legal counsel sent him a letter and an email withdrawing the lease and asking for its equipment back, pronto. This isn’t a coincidence, mind you; the letter explicitly references Wilson’s planned activities. So what’s Stratasys’ beef? The company stated in the letter that, because Wilson does not have a federal firearms manufacturers license, his activities were illegal, and Stratasys does not allow its machines to be used for any illegal purposes.

Obviously, this situation raises a lot of questions, and opinions will range widely depending on one’s views of both gun control and the freedom of information on the Internet.

The first is whether or not Wilson’s group is actually breaking any laws. On one hand, Defense Dist states that it’s simply developing the file needed to print one of its guns, which doesn’t sound like “manufacturing at all”; however, they were planning to use the 3D printer to print test models of its designs, which is basically manufacturing. Er, that’s manufacturing, right?

Also, it’s actually not illegal to make a gun at your home without a license, unless you’re planning to sell or otherwise distribute it; of course, Wilson is sort of distributing it by dint of freely giving away the CAD file for the guns. It is illegal to make certain weapons, such as machine guns, but these Wikiweps are just pistols; of course, it’s illegal to make a plastic pistol, so there’s that.

In other words, there’s some legal murkiness here.

To be fair to Stratasys, whether it’s clear or not that Wilson’s group is truly planning to manufacture weapons in violation of federal laws, that’s the kind of liability that no company wants on its hands, and erring on the side of preventing weapons manufacturing is probably smart. Further, Defense Dist has a decidedly activist bent, which surely raised an eyebrow or two at Stratasys HQ.

To be fair to Wilson, according to an account he gave to Wired, Stratasys all but kicked down his door to retrieve its printer, which is perhaps too heavy-handed an approach.

We’d wager that this one is going to court, and the results will be very interesting and could perhaps set legal precedents that will affect the 3D printing industry in the future.

Amidst this complex issue is a simple one: you have to be either very brave or very stupid to fire a plastic gun that you printed at home.