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3D Printing Falls into Gun Control Controversy


Only days after the world’s first fully 3D-printed gun was fired and its CAD files were publically released to the Internet, the U.S. State Department has ordered its takedown, citing international arms control law.

After months of hype surrounding Cody Wilson’s 3D-printed weapons, which include a semi-automatic AR-15, it appears that the official battle over self-manufactured firearms and 3D-printed weapons is underway.

The gun in question, however, would seem much less menacing than a semi-automatic rifle. It’s a handgun that Wilson has named “The Liberator,” but what makes it unique (and potentially more threatening) is that the entire weapon is 3D-printable.

After the gun was successfully printed and fired, Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed and the mastermind behind the Wiki Weapon project, made the file available for free online.

Specifically, the files went to DEFCAD, an online library dedicated to hosting files that have been censored from the Thingiverse.com CAD repository—specifically those relating to firearms. Thingiverse's parent company, MakerBot, took down the files following the mass shooting in Newtown Conn., claiming they violated the company's terms of use.

Despite being blocked from Thingiverse, however, the gun blueprint was downloaded from DEFCAD more than 100,000 times in only two days.

The Liberator may be getting the most attention here, as the government’s reaction is coming only days after its release, but the State Department’s letter ordered the takedown of nine other 3D-printable firearm components hosted on DEFCAD as well.

The government stated that it plans to review the files to determine whether they violate the arms export control laws known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

“Until the Department provides Defense Distributed with final [commodity jurisdiction] determinations, Defense Distributed should treat the above technical data as ITAR-controlled,” states the letter, referring to the ten CAD files that include 3D-printable guns, silencers and sights. “This means that all data should be removed from public access immediately. Defense Distributed should review the remainder of the data made public on its website to determine whether any other data may be similarly controlled and proceed according to ITAR requirements.”

But complete removal from public access won’t be as easy as it sounds, as Wilson was quick to note in an interview with Forbes: “We have to comply,” Wilson began. “‘All such data should be removed from public access,’ the letter says. That might be an impossible standard. But we’ll do our part to remove it from our servers.”

What Wilson is referring to is the files’ presence on file-sharing sites such as Mega, and The Pirate Bay. You may know Mega by its pre-2013 name,  “Megaupload,” which got its founder, Kim Dotcom, arrested for criminal copyright infringement in 2012. And it was Mega—not DEFCAD—that won The Liberator its 100,000 downloads.

So far there has been no indication that Mega will remove the files from its servers. Meanwhile, The Pirate Bay is distributing the censored files on its site as well, demonstrating just how daunting a task Internet censorship can be in the age of file sharing.

Next--Testing "The Liberator">

Testing "The Liberator"

As for what Wilson has already printed and fired, The Liberator has successfully shot off a .380 handgun round, but when Wilson switched The Liberator’s barrel for a 5.7x28 rifle cartridge, the gun exploded, sending ABS shrapnel flying across the field where it was tested.

The failed test has led some to dismiss the technology as being too dangerous to appeal to anyone, but Wilson has overcome these sorts of issues in the past. When the 3D-printed lower receiver of his AR-15 failed after only six rounds, he worked until the design was able to fire off 660 rounds without structural degradation, suggesting that it’s only a matter of time until The Liberator overcomes such weaknesses as well.

Now, additive manufacturing advocates are faced with the potential for one of the nation's most popular up-and-coming technologies to get caught up in the national debate on gun control.

Michael Weinberg, a staff lawyer at Public Knowledge, is concerned that the result of all this will be stricter, more clumsy regulation of 3D printing as a whole. He and others have cited the availability of homegrown firearms long before the advent of 3D printing.

Ginger Colburn, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) says that the agency has seen guns made from pens, books, belts and even clubs. “You name it, people have turned it into firearms.”

One potential bypass to 3D printing regulation comes in the form of a bill proposed Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who is pushing to renew and expand a 1988 law banning plastic weapons. At the time, the law was designed to prevent people from carrying guns past metal detectors in airports, but now it could be used to prevent the printing of guns such as Wilson’s.

On Sunday, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., echoed Israel in a press conference, citing that “a terrorist, someone’s who’s mentally ill, a spousal abuser, a felon can essentially open a gun factory in their garage.

And they wouldn’t be the first to voice their opposition to Wilson’s vision for guns in America. When Stratasys learned last October that the 3D printer Wilson was leasing from the company was being used to manufacture gun parts, the company promptly seized the printer.

So far, Defense Distributed has found an alternate route around every roadblock. Wilson later overcame this setback by buying a used Stratasys Dimension SST off of Ebay. And to sidestep metal detector legislation, they deposited a six-ounce cube of steel into the Liberator’s body.

Wilson denies having any intentions of promoting violence or even a revolt against the government, but says that instead his goals are to demonstrate how technology can circumvent laws until the government is no longer relevant. And so far, whether it’s been about Internet censorship or gun control, Wilson seems to be succeeding in showing us just how uphill of a battle this may be.

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