Can you really just print your own working firearm with a 3D printer?

The advent of 3D printing has been heralded by many as a revolution in mass production, especially with home versions of 3D printers now becoming available. With these devices and a little bit of technical know-how, the converts casually pronounce, anything is possible in the brave new world. That may be true, but it’s always worth remembering: “anything” doesn’t necessarily tend to limit itself to the good stuff.

Last week, Defense Distributed’s Wiki Weapon project reached its funding goal, meaning that – barring any unforeseen circumstances – it will be able to go ahead with its plan to create the world’s first fully-printable, working plastic gun, before going on to make the blueprints for said device available online, for free, for anyone to download and use to build their own firearm. As you might expect, that’s not an idea that thrills everyone.

The project is the creation of a University of Texas law student called Cody Wilson, who worked with a group of engineers, designers and programmers to develop the prototype device after discussing the idea with friends. Wilson is well-aware of ideological objections to make it possible for firearms to be created without license or guidelines, but he is firmly of the mindset that it’s better to live free than restrict an American’s right to bear arms. “People say you’re going to allow people to hurt people, well, that’s one of the sad realities of liberty. People abuse freedom,” he told the Guardian newspaper. “But that’s no excuse not to have these rights or to feel good about someone taking them away from you.”

Wilson is familiar with defending his idea. He initially tried to crowdsource Wiki Weapon on IndieGoGo, only for the website to freeze the project and refuse to share the $2,000 Wilson had already managed to raise beforehand (According to IndieGoGo, the project was frozen for violating company policy as it involved the sale of firearms, a charge that Wilson rejects as Wiki Weapon was never a for-profit project, nor planned to actually sell firearms, as such). Even after he went solo and managed to reach his crowdfunding goal, the problems haven’t ended; it turns out that actually fulfilling its aim may be illegal under US law (Specifically, it may run afoul of a 1988 law known as the Undetectable Firearms Act that prohibits entirely-plastic firearms).

Again, Wilson – who is, after all, a law student and therefore familiar with such legal challenges, is undeterred. “I haven’t felt any real heat yet, but I think it’s very possible the project might happen outside of America or the files might be hosted outside of America,” he’s on record as admitting. “The point of manufacture might also have to be outside of the United States.”

Even with full funding, it’s possible that Wiki Weapons will disappear without a trace like other crowdfunded projects. But it’s worth considering the project just a taste of what’s to come as 3D printing technology becomes more popular amongst the mainstream.

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