When we started this blog I assumed that the two main things we would cover would be 1) patents and other impediments to making 3D printers, and 2) patents, trade-marks, copyrights and other IP protections that may be enforced against people using 3D printers.
But recently, many have keyed in on another possible 3D printing application with legal ramifications: printing guns. And not just guns, but also ammunition and other weapon-related items. For example:
It is becoming increasingly obvious that 3D printers could be used to print banned or controlled items, or to make access to dangerous items much more convenient. In response to Defense Distributed’s YouTube demonstration above, U.S. Congressman Steve Israel reiterated plans to introduce legislation to deal with the issue by banning guns undetectable to X-Ray machines:
Rep. Israel said, “Background checks and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print high-capacity magazines at home. 3-D printing is a new technology that shows great promise, but also requires new guidelines. Law enforcement officials should have the power to stop high-capacity magazines from proliferating with a Google search.”
The counter argument would be that homemade weapons have always been available to hobbyists and terrorists alike. The difference, I would argue, is that 3D printing opens possibilities that we can’t even contemplate yet. That’s not a bad thing – I think that as a general rule the benefits of new technologies outweigh the drawbacks of stifling innovation.
Consider Lee Cronin, whose “chemputer” is essentially a combination of a 3D printer and a chemistry set.
In his lab, they put together a rudimentary prototype of a chemical 3D printer, which could be programmed to make basic chemical reactions to produce different molecules. (link)
The potential for such a device is unbelievable. But it is hard to see how a chemputer couldn’t also be used to print banned or controlled drug substances, chemical weapons, poison, etc. The question is whether these are simply new challenges for law enforcement to deal with, or whether we need new legal approaches to handle the new possibilities.
*February 14 Update*
Today the Economist weighs in with a quick summary of the issue and suggests that Rep. Israel’s proposed bans on undetectable guns and plastic gun magazines may already be too late.