3D-Printed Problem: Regulating 3D-Printed Firearms by Diane Sung

Diane Sung
J.D. Candidate 2018
University of Colorado


The history of 3D printing begins as early as 1983 when Charles Hull first invented “stereolithography” (SLA), the process behind 3D printers.[1]  In 1986, Hull founded 3D Systems and developed the first commercial 3D printer, SLA-1.[2]  Since then, the technology has continued to develop and advance, with a wide range of uses and increasing popularity among consumers.  Among those uses is the ability to 3D print firearms, which has created a growing need for new regulations.  However, regulatory response may favor public safety and national security concerns over protecting constitutional rights.  Though those concerns have merit, diminishing constitutional rights would be an unfortunate response and a better approach would be for lawmakers to work within the bounds of the Constitution.


The Future of Manufacturing                                                                                                                        

In recent years, 3D printers have created some incredible products that demonstrate the incredible capabilities of this technology:

  • November 2010 – The “Urbee,” a prototype for the first car to have a 3D printed body, is completed.[3]
  • July 2011 – The Southhampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft (SULSA), the first aircraft to have an entirely 3D-printed body is announced and later flown.[4]
  • February 2012 – The world’s first 3D-printed lower jaw implant is created and later successfully implanted in an 83-year-old patient.[5]
  • May 2013 – The “Liberator,” the world’s first fully 3D-printed gun, is created.[6]
  • January 2014 – SpaceX successfully launches its Falcon 9 rocket with a 3D-printed valve.[7]
  • January 2015 – A five-story apartment building comprised primarily of 3D printed parts, is built in China by WinSun, a Chinese construction company.[8]


Online Blueprints & Government Response

By using digital files as “blueprints” for various objects, 3D printers have numerous capabilities such as those listed above.[9]  Online resources like Thingiverse provide platforms for open-source software where users can share their blueprint files for 3D printing.[10]  Although 3D printing has many positive uses, the introduction of the 3D-printed gun has been controversial.  In 2013, a company named Defense Distributed created the “Liberator,” the first 3D-printed gun.[11]  The group then released the blueprints for the 3D-printed gun online, making them available to the public.[12]  Despite the State Department’s demands to remove the blueprints, over 100,000 people have already downloaded them.[13]

Under the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act, it is illegal for anyone to “manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver possess, transfer, or receive any firearm” that is undetectable by metal detectors or x-ray machines.[14]  In December 2013, the Senate approved the ten-year extension of the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act that was set to expire.[15]  Two New York Senators, Steve Israel and Chuck Schumer, sought to expand the Act’s scope to better account for 3D-printed firearms.[16]  Their proposals would require the detectable metal component of any firearm to be a crucial and functional part.[17]  However, Republicans strongly opposed any efforts to expand the Act, and 3D-printed guns remain legal in the United States today.[18]


Regulating Under the Constitution

Today, the country remains deeply divided on the issue of gun control, and the introduction of 3D-printed guns complicates the issue.  With few safeguards in place to sufficiently regulate 3D-printed firearms, it is easy to view 3D-printed guns as a threat to the general public’s safety.  As 3D-printing technology continues to advance, current firearm regulations will likely be insufficient and the need for regulation will grow.  However, this may at times conflict with individual rights.[19]

Finding a solution for managing this new technology is far from simple and raises several constitutional issues:

  • Do 3D-model files constitute free speech protected by the 1st Amendment?[20]
  • Under the 2nd Amendment, do citizens have the right to privately create potentially unregulated guns?[21]
  • What impact would the regulation of 3D-printed guns have on an individual’s privacy rights under the 4thAmendment?[22]

These issues must be addressed in order to propose effective regulations and legislation.  Although regulation raises some constitutional concerns, leaving the expanded use of 3D printers and 3D-printed guns largely unregulated may also violate or infringe other rights, particularly in intellectual property.  For example, the copyright infringement issues around illegally downloaded music files could similarly affect the digital files needed for 3D printing.[23]  The increasing popularity and accessibility of 3D printers among general consumers will likely make unregulated 3D-printed guns a more prevalent and widespread issue.[24]  Strengthening existing laws, such as expanding the Undetectable Firearms Act, or implementing new regulations that better target the issues directly can help provide some controls over 3D-printed firearms without treading on constitutional rights.  The law needs to adapt to better address this advancing technology and the impact of its increasing private use, but should do so without weakening individual rights.


[1] The Journey of a Lifetime, 3D Systems, http://www.3dsystems.com/30-years-innovation (last visited Sep. 15, 2016).

[2] Id.

[3] Tim Stevens, The Urbee Hybrid is the first car to come out of a printer, Engadget (Nov. 3, 2010), https://www.engadget.com/2010/11/03/the-urbee-hybrid-is-the-first-car-to-come-out-of-a-printer-pres/.

[4] Ben Coxworth, World’s first ‘printed’ aircraft is flown, New Atlas (July 29, 2011), http://newatlas.com/3d-printed-aircraft-flown/19383/.

[5] Transplant jaw made by 3D printer claimed as first, BBC News (Mar. 8, 2012),  http://www.bbc.com/news/

[6] Andy Greenberg, Meet The ‘Liberator’: Test-Firing The World’s First Fully 3D-Printed Gun, Forbes (May 5, 2013, 5:30 PM),  http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/05/05/meet-the-liberator-test-firing-the-worlds-first-fully-3d-printed-gun/#7ca5c63e511e

[7] SpaceX Launches 3D-Printed Part to Space, Creates Printed Engine Chamber, SpaceX (July 31, 2014), http://www.spacex.com/news/2014/07/31/spacex-launches-3d-printed-part-space-creates-printed-engine-chamber-crewed.

[8] Michelle Starr, World’s first 3D-printed apartment building constructed in China, CNET (Jan. 19, 2015, 7:05 PM PST), https://www.cnet.com/news/worlds-first-3d-printed-apartment-building-constructed-in-china/.

[9] T. Rowe Price, 3D Printing Infographic, https://individual.troweprice.com/staticFiles/Retail/Shared/PDFs/3D_
Printing_Infographic_FINAL.pdf (last visited Jan. 28, 2017).

[10] Thingiverse, http://www.thingiverse.com/about/ (last visited Jan. 28, 2017).

[11] Andy Greenberg, Meet The ‘Liberator’: Test-Firing The World’s First Fully 3D-Printed Gun, Forbes (May 5, 2013, 5:30 PM),  http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/05/05/meet-the-liberator-test-firing-the-worlds-first-fully-3d-printed-gun/#67e63455511e.

[12] Andy Greenberg, 3-D Printed Gun Lawsuit Starts the War Between Arms Control and Free Speech, Wired (May 6, 2015, 5:08 PM), https://www.wired.com/2015/05/3-d-printed-gun-lawsuit-starts-war-arms-control-free-speech/.

[13] Senator seeks to extend ban on ‘undetectable’ 3D-printed guns, The Guardian (Nov. 17, 2013, 9:20 EST), https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/nov/17/3d-printing-guns-ban-senate

[14] Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, 102 Stat. 3816.

[15] Susan Davis, Congress extends plastic gun ban, USA Today (Dec. 9, 2013, 8:53 PM EST), http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/12/09/congress-extends-plastic-gun-ban/3922175/.

[16] Schumer Announces Support For Measure To Make 3D Printed Guns Illegal, CBS N.Y. (May 5, 2013, 12:17 PM), http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2013/05/05/schumer-announces-support-for-measure-to-make-3d-printed-guns-illegal/.

[17] Andy Greenberg, Bill to Ban Undetectable 3D Printed Guns is Coming Back, Wired (April 6, 2015, 7:00 AM) https://www.wired.com/2015/04/bill-ban-undetectable-3-d-printed-guns-coming-back/.

[18] Susan Davis, Congress extends plastic gun ban, USA Today (Dec. 9, 2013, 8:53 PM EST), http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/12/09/congress-extends-plastic-gun-ban/3922175/.

[19] Defense Distributed v. U.S. Dep’t of State, 838 F.3d 451 (5th Cir. Tex. 2016).

[20] See Barton Lee, Where Gutenberg Meets Guns: The Liberator, 3D-Printed Weapons, and the First Amendment, 92 N.C. L. Rev. 1393, 1393-1394 (2014). http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/nclr92&div=36&g_sent=1&collection=journals

[21] Josh Blackman, The 1st Amendment, 2nd Amendment, and 3D Printed Guns, 81 Tenn. L. Rev. 479, 490-492 (2014).

[22] See Julian J. Johnson, Print, Lock, and Load, 2 J. of Law, Tech., & Policy 337, 353 (2013).

[23] Anne Lewis, The Legality of 3D Printing: How Technology Is Moving Faster than the Law, 17 Tul. J. Tech. & Intell. Prop. 303, 315-317 (2014).

[24] Gartner Says Worldwide Shipments of 3D Printers to Reach More Than 490,000 in 2016, Gartner (Sep. 29, 2015), http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3139118.