Is a 3D-printable gun a genuine threat? The U.S. State Department believes so, and on Thursday it ordered that blueprints for a 3D-printable and undetectable plastic handgun be taken down from the Web.
On Monday, an organization called Defense Distributed posted online blueprints for using a 3D plastics printer to create a handgun it called "Liberator," as well as information on nine other firearms components, including silencers and sights. The organization said it received on Thursday a letter from the State Department demanding that the documents be taken down, so they may first be reviewed for compliance with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
The federal agency's concern is that the document violates export controls on weapons. The letter said that, until the State Department determines if the documents violates the law, "Defense Distributed should treat the above technical data as ITAR-controlled." The 3D-printed gun blueprints were reportedly downloaded about 100,000 times in the first two days they were online.
Earlier this month, Defense Distributed demonstrated what it said was the firing of the first workable, printed gun. The issue of plastic guns confronts not only any form of domestic gun control, such as the ability to conduct background checks, but also anti-terrorist screenings as passengers board airliners.
An all-plastic gun is undetectable under current Transportation Safety Administration technology, which is why a law signed by President Reagan outlawed them. To get around that law, Defense Distributed utilized a firing pin made from a metal nail, and inserted a non-functional piece of metal.
Although several bills to outlaw printed, plastic guns have been introduced in California and in Congress, some gun-control advocates believe alarm about such weapons is overblown.
A representative of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, for instance, has told news media that it is unlikely any terrorists or mass murderer would go to the trouble of getting a 3D printer, finding and retrieving the files, and figuring out how to print and assemble such a gun, which might not fire well or fire only a few times -- especially when it is so easy in the U.S. to just buy one. On the other hand, technology's history shows that early, crude R&D can quickly become highly polished, reliable products.
'Conversation I Want'
Cody Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas in Austin and founder of Defense Distributed, said that his organization would comply with the federal directive and remove them from public access. It is not clear, however, if the files will actually be removed from their server. They are housed on a server at the New Zealand-based Mega, run by ex-hacker Kim Dotcom.
The gun blueprints were also uploaded on several occasions to a site called Pirate Bay, a secretive file-sharing site that several countries have tried to shut down.
Wilson, a self-described radical libertarian and anarchist, said his non-profit organization is protected because of an exemption in ITAR regulations for non-profit organizations' public domain releases of research-based technical files, as long as they are stored in a library or sold through a bookstore. He contends that the Internet is the equivalent of a library, and that the files are also available for sale through an unnamed bookstore in Austin.
He welcomed the attention, and told Forbes magazine that "this is the conversation I want," because it highlights such issues as whether there can be "defense trade control in the era of the Internet and 3D printing."