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Would a 3D-printed gun really be legal?

The quickly advancing technology raises new legal questions, experts say

By Zach Miners, IDG News Service
March 21, 2013 10:41 AM ET

IDG News Service - Defense Distributed, the pro-gun nonprofit working to make 3D-printable gun designs freely available to everyone on the Internet, recently inched one step closer toward achieving that goal. The Austin, Texas-based group last week was granted a federal firearms license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"I can now sell the things we make, and am before the law a manufacturer, not a private citizen with regard to these items," said Cody Wilson, the group's young CEO, a self-described "crypto-anarchist" who is also a law student at the University of Texas.

[ IN PICTURES: Wicked cool 3D printer creations ]

Defense Distributed mag
Zach Miners
Defense Distributed's 3D-printed gun parts include an AK-47 magazine.

So far, Defense Distributed has only succeeded in producing gun parts, such as a lower receiver for an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and a magazine for an AK-47, not entire guns. But its designs and prototypes have gained a considerable following: To date, its files have been downloaded more than 400,000 times.

Defense Distributed's ongoing efforts in the 3D printing space, however, highlight numerous legal and legislative issues that may need to be rethought as the technology picks up steam.

"This whole issue could obliterate, or at least undermine, the effective regulation of firearms possession," said Mary Fan, a law professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Some vexing questions relate specifically to Defense Distributed's license. What the group holds now allows for the manufacture of firearms regulated by the federal Gun Control Act (GCA), which includes most handguns, shotguns and rifles. However, some of the more powerful firearms that the group has been associated with, such as non-sporting semi-automatic weapons and machine guns, are governed instead by the National Firearms Act (NFA).

Under the current laws, any non-licensed person can make a GCA firearm for personal use as long as it is not for sale. The making of an NFA-regulated firearm, on the other hand, requires a tax payment and approval by the government. Defense Distributed currently does not have that type of approval.

The average person accessing Defense Distributed's gun designs probably would not have NFA approval either. But even the less restrictive GCA, which was enacted back in 1968, raises questions in the context of 3D printing.

"These exemptions for making firearms were created long before even the dream of 3D printers," the University of Washington's Fan said.

"Currently there are no legal implications" to making your own 3D-printed weapons, said Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA. "This is a case where the technology could quickly outpace the law."

But changing laws to accommodate the emerging technology would be tricky. "Do we tweak the existing gun laws, regulate the 3D printers themselves, or the new firearms that are made with them?" Fan said.

Another approach, however unlikely, might be to simply make it illegal for people to build their own firearms, Winkler said.

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