Gun Control vs. 3D Printing: How Technology is Transforming the Anarchist Struggle (Part 3 of 4)

I took out some of the more dry parts of my essay (e.g. Methodology), so the real “meat” starts here.

Case Study

How can we use the Internet and productive capital to dis-intermediate State actors and expand free spheres of action? The entire market, even for currencies, should become black. — Cody Wilson, representative of Defense Distributed

The privilege of owning firearms is embedded into the history preceding and formation of the United States. During the formation of the United States, political consensus held that “the main danger to the republic was tyrannical government and the ultimate check on tyrannical government was an armed population”. That prevailing opinion likely arose from the perceived tyranny of English colonies in North America by the Parliament of Great Britain and the subsequent revolution of said colonists during the American Revolution of the 18th century. To guarantee “certain [natural] rights”, a bill of rights was drafted and ultimately ratified by the United States in 1791. The Second Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights specifically states: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”.

In the following centuries, the United States has released numerous pieces of legislation that refine this foundational privilege. In 2008, the United States Supreme Court, the highest court of the nation’s judicial branch, ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that, although the “Second Amendment right is not unlimited”, the District of Columbia’s “total ban on handgun possession in the home” is a violation of the Second Amendment. In summary, this decision guaranteed the individual right to possess firearms in federal territories. Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment extended to state and local gun control laws. Despite these setbacks, support for gun control remains strong among the American public (on April 29, 2013, 65% of Americans believed that the US Senate “should have passed the measure that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases”) and politicians, including United States President Obama. Several recent gun violence incidents — many of which involved assault rifles — have driven the issue of gun control of the forefront of political and public debate in the United States. Notable mass shootings withing the past year include the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (December 14, 2012) and the Santa Monica shooting (June 7, 2013).

While the 21st century debate on gun control was occurring, 3D printing was rapidly evolving from a tentative experiment to a commercial, yet potentially open-source, realization. Some individuals, including the now-famous Cody Wilson, saw the potential in 3D printing to completely circumvent the gun control debate. In August, Cody Wilson, a self-described crypto-anarchist, banded with some like-minded individuals to create Defense Distributed. Soon after, Defense Distributed created an Indiegogo crowd-sourced fundraising campaign to raise funds necessary to “design and release blueprints for a plastic gun anyone can create with an open-source 3D printer”. While Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas School of Law, insisted this project was legal, Indiegogo administrators took down the fundraising page and disallowed donations. Despite this obstacle, Defense Distributed continued to accept donations through alternate means.

Through their funding, Defense Distributed leased a commercial 3D printer from the company Stratasys. When Stratasys learned of Defense Distributed’s plans to manufacture and test a 3D firearm, the company quickly retracted their lease and immediately sent contractors to retrieve the printer from Wilson’s apartment. Following the incident, which occurred in September 2012, Wilson released a statement claiming that “nothing we do violates the law”; while United States federal law allows individuals to “manufacture a gun at home without a license” under certain restrictions, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) considers 3D-printed guns to “fall into a regulatory gray area”. In response, Defense Distributed applied for a federal firearms license in October 2012.

Despite these setbacks, Defense Distributed continued with its project. In February 2013, the group printed and tested a 3D-printed “lower receiver” (i.e. the component of firearms that contains its operational parts) within the body of a conventionally manufactured AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. While their previous attempts at printing a lower receiver were largely unsuccessful, this attempt yielded a lower receiver that could withstand the stresses of firing more than 650 rounds. It should be noted that, by the ATF’s definition, for the AR-15, the “lower receiver” is the regulated component; in essence, Defense Distributed successfully printed the essential (and the regulated) component of a firearm. Shortly after their successful test, the group released the 3D blueprints for the AR-15 lower receiver on the Internet for free. In March 2013, the group’s application for a federal firearm license to manufacture firearms was approved. This license allows Defense Distributed to transport and sell a variety of firearms.

Following the acquisition of their license, Defense Distributed tested and released 3D blueprints for the Liberator, a single-shot firearm made almost completely from plastic. The final component in the Liberator was a metal nail (which can be purchased at any hardware store) that acted as the firing pin. While Defense Distributed used a relatively expensive, commercial 3D printer to test the Liberator, they are also working on refining their 3D blueprint to work with printers meant for home use, particularly RepRap. With the successful operation and free digital distribution of blueprints for a working firearm, worry about 3D-printed firearms has renewed. In response to the Liberator, Senator Charles Schumer of New York called for legislation banning 3D-printed firearms, which he stated could be used to evade walk-through metal detectors and which could be created by “printers that cost as little as $1,000”. In California, the legislature response was much more profound.

Fear of 3D-printed firearms extends beyond typical gun control demographics. For example, in December 2012, Thingiverse, an free online library for user-uploaded 3D blueprints, removed all designs for weapon components. Even champions of open source and free content like Kim Dotcom have denounced 3D-printed firearms: “I think it’s a serious threat to the security of the community… it’s scary”. In response to the censorship of 3D firearm blueprints on many popular 3D blueprint libraries, Defense Distributed created its own online library — DEFCAD — for 3D blueprints of all types, controversial or not. In May 2013, the State Department removed DEFCAD files “from public access”. Before the State Department could act, however, the Liberator blueprints had been downloaded over 100,000 times; as of May 31, 2013, “over 4,000 computers all around the world” were distributing the Liberator blueprints over peer-to-peer networks.