Should we limit access to 3D printing?

In 2013 a US-based group called Defense Distributed designed and manufactured an operational 3D printed plastic gun. They then stated their intentions to put the blueprints for the weapon online for all to use. This has caused controversy, with thoughts on how it will make obtaining guns easier and compromise airport security due to their plastic basis. So the question is should something be put in place which will constrain what can be made and who can make it?

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The Benefits of Control

Now some would say that by trying to add more control to the products of 3D printing you could stifle the industry and the creativity of its users, but this is about the general public too as they could also be affected. Therefore, it’s the government who has to look into this first, as they are the body who would have to look at implementing legislation. Their primary concern at the moment has to be public safety, especially with nations such as Israel already having issues with homemade firearms. Airport security in particular is a great concern with 3D printing. Plastic weapons can pass through metal detectors; allowing passengers to enter terminals and planes with an effective firearm. With terrorist threats becoming an increasing issue, this has the potential to create a serious hole in the defensive network. This extra threat could also instill more fear in the general public. With 48% of American gun owners now giving personal protection as their reason for owning a firearm, could this increase in fear have a similar effect in the UK? British citizens may want to arm themselves in order to stay safe; look at the number of firearm related incidences in the USA compared to the UK and clearly it would not be a positive change.

With the technology becoming more advanced and cheaper all the time, it could become even easier for those causing the issues.

So what could we do to reduce these threats? We could:

  1. Implement a license for the ownership and operation of a 3D Printer.
  2. Require all printers to have monitoring software installed, so any parts printed are known to the government.
  3. Try to enforce legislation on the downloading and sharing of what are deemed dangerous files.

Now most would consider option 2 to be the most immoral, as it would impose on the privacy of those who use a printer even when not being used for ‘dangerous’ means, but it would be effective. Option 3 on the other hand would most likely be the hardest to apply successfully, but would cause the least disruption to the industry and those who use the printers. Finally, in terms of effectiveness and moral viability, option 1 meets both criteria. For instance looking at the issue from a utilitarian viewpoint, there are more people who can benefit from a simple license being implemented than would be hindered. It is far easier to control the sale of machines than it is to control files being downloaded from the internet. This would not eradicate the problems, but if an issue did arise it’s far easier to find the owner of a machine with a license than an individual who downloaded a file.

The Cost of Restrictions

3D printing guns is currently not viable. The polymeric substance used in 3D printers means guns manufactured in this manner have been considered dangerous and unreliable. The Liberator designed by Defence Distributed only fires single shots before being considered inoperable. The gun was found to misfire upon multiple attempts, exploding the barrel and exposing the user to great danger. Strict licensing of gun distribution across the globe has mainly been executed due to potential danger one can cause upon others. However, firearms manufactured in this fashion clearly raise more health and safety concerns for the user. 3D printers cannot physically extrude higher strength materials to contain gun powder explosions. Therefore, the user could never viably manufacture an arsenal of firearms with immoral intentions.

Following from this, any 3D printer able to produce reliable lethal weapons would be greatly expensive. The printer used to manufacture the Liberator costs beyond $8000. Anybody whose intentions are focussed on causing harm to others could discover much cheaper solutions. A simple google search uncovers downloadable plans for a British designed 9mm ‘BSP’ firearm made from pipe fittings and home appliances. This shows people will always be able to find manufacturing alternatives and execute them if their immoral intentions are strong enough. Thus controlling 3D printer output will be ineffective towards weapon supply and demand and will only stifle the possibilities of new found positive applications.

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Consider the effect on industry; licensing and regulating 3D printing technology would inhibit development of a newly emerging technology. The process of manufacturing a part would be drastically lengthened whilst waiting for approval of machine purchase thus many may turn to alternative options. This could prevent many current engineering issues from being solved as soon as would be possible without regulation. Having the technology available to the public presents vast research and development opportunities. Readily available home 3D printers also aid in improving public awareness of the technology, meaning that it will be more likely to be accepted as a valid solution in industry, hence helping to solve many design issues within aerospace and beyond. Regulation would just create more barriers to AM becoming a widely accepted technology and being taken for what it is not, from some people’s poorly perceived preconceptions.

Returning to the issue of gun crime, regulation of 3D printing wouldn’t tackle the issue especially in countries such as the USA. Currently, not all parts for a gun can be additively manufactured as gunpowder still has to be purchased. If an individual has a desire to obtain firearms illegally then much simpler alternatives are available such as buying an actual gun on the black market, because in the end if someone wants a gun badly enough they will find a way of getting one.

57: Will Skipper, Luke Sweeney, Hasnain Bashir, Harry Parker


12 thoughts on “Should we limit access to 3D printing?

  1. Article is well written. The software and hardware should be licensed. Plastic guns will not be the only 3D printed problem. These printers should be limited to organisations as opposed to private household use. Many abuses of this form of software occur in private. At least if it is a public organisation, there is less chance of misuse.


  2. An interesting read, easily understood and met all major points. I think it is probably too late for ethical discussions, given the technology is already available. I would personally get one and print a gun among other irresponsible/ inappropriate things so that probably speaks for itself… and the general public shouldn’t have uncontrolled access to a 3D printer 🙂


  3. The article is well written. At the current state of the technology I do not think licensing is needed. People who would use 3D printing for guns would find other ways to get/manufacture weapons if this was not an option. Also with the lack of reliability in the structural strength and firing capability I would say there is not a large public threat, only threat to the user itself. As the technology advances it may be something to consider especially if material capabilities allow for use of metals.


  4. This is quite an interesting argument. With the current technology, guns produced are not yet up to standard, however with continuous research in this field leading to the development of more functionally graded materials and AM process that are more advanced than the ones currently available to the general public, is it then possible that a lethal weapon could be developed using this technology? YES. If yes, then should we curtail its development or plan on how to control the use of this technology? From a utilitarian point of view NO! This is a technology that has been tagged by industry experts as the next industrial revolution, therefore it has lots of potential financial benefits, its a technology that would change the future of healthcare, design, space exploration, fashion and even retail. Converting these into monetary value clearly outweighs the cons that this technology might be used for in the future.


  5. Paragraph two is really powerful and reasonable. If we think about gun from engineering perspective, the barrel sliding and muzzle really need to be made by very tough material like steel with alloy. They should be made after heating steel for hundred degree of Celsius just to make really tough material, even by casting may not be made. I personally believe, with our current technology and with available 3D printer! Its almost impossible to make rally efficient gun! One shot or twice! I think is not dangerous! If we trying to stop 3D printer, they will find another way to do crime if they want. I believe, theses available 3D guns not dangerous as a knife!

    Really great work, well done.


  6. Really well written article. I think some sort of control or license of 3D printing should definitely be implemented. If a gun can be 3D printed, it’s a worrying thought what else could be printed next?


  7. Well written and some really good points made. Some steps towards licensing must be made due to the potential dangers of this technology becoming widespread however you’d also want to avoid stifling the industry. Interesting conundrum for regulators.


  8. Nice article, and pleased to see more than one side to it. My personal opinion on regulation is that, even if we SHOULD do it (in my view dubious anyway), the logistics of doing so would make it prohibitively difficult and/or expensive. If we consider the number of machines out there, and the amount of different parts being produced, how would we possibly monitor them all? Automatic monitoring might be a possibility, but how do you determine which parts are OK and which parts are to be used for something illegal? Besides which, we don’t monitor usage of other ‘at home’ manufacturing equipment, so why would we with 3D Printing..?


  9. Well written Skipper. As mentioned, people were making firearms before they had access to 3D printers. If a person really wants a gun, they will eventually find a way to obtain or make one in some shape or form…especially given how easy it is to get one here in Texas as you already know 🙂 In any event, the means to which new technologies are allowing individuals to create weaponry at such ease is quite scary to think about!
    “It’s worth noting that there’s more stuff—and potentially more dangerous stuff—going on in garages and basements than gun printing.”


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