AMS Spring 2023

U.S. Representatives Reintroduce Bill Against 3D Printed Gun Blueprints

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On June 13, 2019, a group of representatives led by congressman Theodore Deutch from Florida introduced the 3D Printed Gun Safety Act to prohibit the distribution of online blueprints to print firearms. However, the bill faced opposition by some concerned with limiting the distribution of plans for 3D printing and how that would affect individual liberties. As a result, the bill received mixed reviews and never made it to the Senate. Instead it was only referred to two subcommittees for review.

Two years later, congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney from New York teamed up with Deutch and other representatives to reintroduce the 3D Printed Gun Safety Act, with high hopes that this time they will “move swiftly on this common-sense legislation” and “close a major safety loophole” of untraceable and undetectable 3D printed guns. However, the move could face major backlash from Americans who feel this bill will infringe on their First Amendment rights.

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. Image courtesy of Maloney.

Co-sponsored by 44 representatives and at least 23 senators, the bicameral bill would make it illegal to distribute online digital files that can automatically program a 3D printer to produce or complete the manufacture of a firearm. One of the biggest concerns put forth here is that 3D-printed firearms are untraceable since they do not have a serial number for law enforcement to reference. This particular argument has surfaced countless times, ever since American libertarian Cody Wilson released the blueprints for his single-shot 3D printed Liberator pistol in 2013.

Fueled by a concern that these forms of “ghost guns” could be used for crimes, several countries and U.S. states have already criminalized self-printed guns. For example, Australia passed the Firearms and Weapons Prohibition Legislation Amendment Bill in 2015, making it illegal to possess digital files that can be used to manufacture firearms on 3D printers or electronic milling machines. More recently, the Singapore Parliament banned the nation’s residents from owning digital blueprints for 3D printed firearms without a proper license.

Even within the US, an ongoing debate on whether blueprints for 3D printed guns should be taken down from the Internet is still raging on. For years, law enforcement agencies have warned about the potential dangers of 3D printed ghost guns, but efforts to regulate this technology area have not been entirely successful. In 2019, the debate led to several conflicting decisions. For example, the Trump administration reversed a long-standing policy and began allowing a company called Defense Distributed to post electronic files for 3D printable guns online. However, after the Attorneys General for 19 states and the District of Columbia filed suit, a federal judge ruled to maintain the ban on posting electronic files.

But the dichotomy of the issue lingered on. During that time, the New York State Senate passed legislation banning undetectable guns, including 3D printed ones, from being manufactured and sold across the state. The legislators argued that the bill would “save lives by criminalizing the manufacturing, sale, transport, and possession of firearms, rifles, shotguns, and the major components of weapons that are undetectable by an X-ray machine.” At the time, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said the country was “under assault from gun violence” and that banning undetectable guns should be a priority for the legislative branch.

CAD file examples of 3D-printed gun files. Image courtesy of the Office of Attorney General Mark R. Herring.

Today, the reintroduced bill would make it illegal nationwide for any person to intentionally distribute online CAD files to automatically program a 3D printer to make a gun. The bill argues that firearm tracing depends on serial numbers and markings that identify the manufacturer or importer, make, model, and caliber and are unique to the gun. Instead, untraceable firearms “contribute to gun crime,” and “the proliferation of 3D printed firearms threatens to undermine the entire Federal firearms regulatory scheme and to endanger public safety and national security.”

The supporters of this bill suggest that the increasing availability of 3D printers has led unlicensed individuals, like felons and domestic abusers, to obtain a firearm by manufacturing it themselves. For example, Senator Edward Markey said 3D-printed guns without background check requirements serve as the “ultimate gun-acquisition loophole.” His counterpart from New Jersey, Senator Robert Menendez, agreed and added that they must “close the ‘3D Gun Loophole’ that allows dangerous individuals to exploit gaps in existing law to manufacture firearms at home they cannot otherwise legally obtain.”

In addition, Maloney highlighted that “more than 90% of Americans support universal background checks for gun purchases, yet the online distribution of blueprints and instructions allow anyone to download and print a firearm without scrutiny.” She believes in preventing these “deadly blueprints” from being distributed online to “save lives.” Similarly, Chief of the Orlando Police Department turned congresswoman, Val Demings said unregulated 3D printing of untraceable guns is a “clear public safety threat.”

Whether 3D printed ghost guns are a real security threat or a manufactured risk is still under debate. Opponents against the bill argue that code and CAD files should be a protected form of free speech under the First Amendment and that limiting distribution infringes upon the freedom of speech. But many worry about several hypothetical threats, mainly that 3D guns could go undetected through metal scanners or are capable of firing multiple rounds more quickly.

Although these are valid points, experts have previously explained to that most printed guns still require a host of metal parts to be completed, such as barrels. Still, seized 3D printed guns and gun parts during raids have alerted law enforcement of an emerging threat in illegal firearms that would allow criminals and terrorists access to untraceable, undetectable 3D printed guns. We will follow this debate as it unravels.

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