It's been exactly two months since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the once-raging debate over gun control has slowed to a sputter. It's not so much that people aren't talking about how to fix our country's gun violence problem. In a way, the gun control conversation has folded into itself, and the conversation's shifted not towards figuring out what we missed. Assault rifle ban? Check. High-capacity magazine ban? Check. Better background checks? Check. 3D-printed gun regulation? Wait, is anybody talking about 3D-printed gun regulation?
The answer is yes. There is at least one congressman who's forward-thinking enough to address the increasingly urgent need to clarify the questionable legality of 3D-printed guns. Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, wants to ban "homemade, 3D printed, plastic high-capacity magazines" with an amendment to the Undetectable Firearms Act, a law due to expire next year that is meant to do away with weapons that can sneak through metal detectors.
Israel has been very careful to say that he does not intend to impose any bans on 3D printing itself, just the very specific situation that would enable people to print weapons they could carry on to a plane. "I’m not seeking to regulate or reduce the use of 3D printers at all," Israel told Forbes this week. "This isn’t about 3D printers. It’s about the use of a 3D printer to manufacture a weapon that can’t be detected by metal detectors."
The legislation reads as an almost direct response to the work of Defense Distributed, a Texas company started last summer by 24-year-old law student Cody Wilson. The group's so-called "Wiki Weapons Project" operates with the ultimate mission of giving everyone access to design files for 3D printing various gun components. In the beginning, it seemed that Defense Distributed was just a vain college dude's attempt at winning some celebrity, but Wilson and company have actually managed to build working gun parts.
Defense Distributed–and pretty much everybody else in the 3D-printed gun business–hasn't been able to figure out a way to print a gun's chamber or barrel. Triggers, stocks, magazines, handles — that stuff's no problem. Neither is the lower receiver, the one part of a gun that is treated as a gun (i.e. has the serial number) under the law. So if you can print your own receiver, you can pretty much buy the rest of the stuff off the shelf without registration.
Wilson and company have been making good progress. They've also made it apparent that they do plan on trolling the gun control debate, albeit with a skewed perspective. In early February, the group tested out a new 3D-printed, high-capacity magazine they call the "Cuomo," after New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who just issued a statewide ban on high-capacity magazines. "Guys like Cuomo are in a bubble," Wilson told Talking Points Memo. "Politicians, big Wall Street traders, they have armed guards. So New York passes a law banning high-capacity magazines and Cuomo says: ‘Ok, New York is safe.’ But he should back down from the hyperbole. Not only can [3D printing guns] not be regulated, but it’s about to be exploded open right now."
That's a confusing set of sentences from future lawyer Cody Wilson, but he does make a good point. Wilson says that over 100,000 people all over the world have downloaded gun component blueprints from the Defense Distributed website. While not all of those people have access to 3D printers, they could in the not-too-distant future.
This week, Obama made 3D printing a core element of his new emphasis on bringing manufacturing back to the United States, and the hardware is getting cheaper by the day. So as the equipment becomes easier to access and the library of designs grows, it's not unreasonable to think that the possibility of an amateur printing a gun and hurting either themselves or others with it are growing as well.
Obama probably knows that 3D-printed guns exist, but he's not talking about it. There's no big conspiracy. It's still a fairly obscure hobby for some kids in Texas and a few other amateur gunsmiths across the nation. Furthermore, it's perfectly legal to make your own firearms and always has been. You could only imagine the collective outrage that Second Amendment enthusiasts would raise if the president started talking about taking that away. However, technology is changing faster than the law, and printing a gun takes a lot less effort and skill than traditional gunsmithing. At some point, we're going to have to have the conversation about how to deal with that.
Israel, it seems, is happy to light that fire and hints at broader regulation of 3D-printed weapons on his website. "Background checks and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print high-capacity magazines at home," Israel said on his website last month. "3-D printing is a new technology that shows great promise, but also requires new guidelines. Law enforcement officials should have the power to keep homemade high-capacity magazines from proliferating with a Google search."
It might not be this year, but working in 3D-printing into the gun control debate will have to happen sooner or later.