The Senate Judiciary Committee opened its doors this week for an emotional hearing about gun violence, gun control and, specifically, a ban on 157 different types of assault rifles. What exactly an assault rifle is has been a source of debate, but the proposed ban defines them as having having "military-style" features like detachable magazines, pistol grips, and even the capacity to be used as grenade or rocket launchers.
Introduced by Sen. Diane Feinstein in the days after the Newtown massacre, the ban is especially controversial, because it includes America's favorite rifle: the AR-15. That's one of the guns that Adam Lanza used when he killed 20 first graders and six adults in Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The AR-15 also happens to be the same gun that a band of renegades known as Defense Distributed have been 3D-printing down in Texas for the past few months. Last week, we learned that DEFCAD, the Defense Distributed-made database of files you feed into a 3D printer to make various gun components, is starting to get some real traction.
According to Defense Distributed, the website is getting about 3,000 unique visitors a day. That's not exactly Facebook-sized traffic, but it is about as big as eBay India. And DEFCAD is sort of like eBay, in a way. It's one big store that lets people upload and download files for 3D printing guns. So far about a quarter of a million files have been downloaded. "Obviously, there’s an interest in what we’re doing," Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson told Venturebeat. "Enthusiasts want these files."
It's not entirely unreasonable to think that part of the demand stems from the fact that these guns could soon be illegal to purchase. It is not, however, illegal to build your own guns, so long as you don't sell them. The legality of 3D printed guns is entirely up in the air. Wilson insists that they're legal, while Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has more or less stayed mum on the issue.
Many people believe that the ATF is staying away from the issue simply because it doesn't know how to deal with it. 3D printing is brand new technology, and it's advancing much faster than the law is. Though initial tests of Defense Distributed's designs were kind of shaky, they showed the world via YouTube that they've built an AR-15 using some (but not all) 3D-printed parts that can fire hundreds of rounds. It's scary.
But we didn't hear Feinstein and the Senate Judiciary Committee talking much about that. If it even got a mention, the press didn't pick it up, and transcripts of the hearing won't be out for another couple of weeks. Of course, we've known for a while now that Congress isn't too concerned about the fast-approaching reality of 3D-printed guns.
Well, the guns themselves are already real — they're getting really good too — but the legal reality remains rather confused. There is one congressman who's thinking hard about the congressman, Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY). He wants to ban "homemade, 3D printed, plastic high-capacity magazines" with an amendment to the Undetectable Firearms Act. This is not the same as Feinstein's assault weapons ban.
For now, it's sensible to let Congress off the hook for glazing over 3D-printed guns. Gun control is one of the most divisive issues in the country, and if lawmakers are going to get anything, they're going to have to choose their battles.
In coming years, 3D printing technology is only going to get better, cheaper and more widespread. That's a great thing! Even President Obama says so. In the not-too-distant future, there could be a 3D printer in every home, and hobbyists could be printing anything from replacement parts for appliances to custom molds of their own heads. They could also be printing guns. Maybe then Congress will come around and start a conversation about if and how to regulate these firearms. Let's just hope they don't look back and realize they missed their chance to get a jump on the issue in February 2013.