The right to print arms

We’ll go out on a limb and suggest that the Founding Fathers never envisioned a country where a wizard could print a musket out of thin air.

So the attention that Cody Wilson is getting today is providing the background for a fascinating constitutional argument about the Second Amendment and whether the right to bear arms extends to the right to print them.

He started a company that distributes the designs for untraceable 3D-printed guns and a judge has ordered him to remove them from the internet.

But they’re already on the internet and nothing can be erased in the whack-a-mole environment, so the argument is entirely theoretical.

“I know it’s absurd to some degree to fight for your principles in a culture like this, but I think it’s a worthy demonstration, and of course, I could always demonstrate, like today, that I can always sell these files. And I’ll continue to do so,” Wilson told CBS’s John Dickerson this morning, more than holding his own in the debate.

Wilson says he’s already sold thousands of the blueprints and he’s not concerned that his product could lead to guns in the wrong hands, as with the man who shot up a videogame tournament last weekend.

“Sure, I mean there’s always a possibility that people with a history of mental illness can get access to information and somehow do something bad with it. But we live in a nation of laws and you should prosecute crimes after the fact,” Wilson said. “You know, this gentleman who shot up this game tournament in Florida legally bought that firearm. The law is there to prevent bad things from happening but to do no more than that.”

Wilson wasn’t asked an important question: What kind of person needs a gun that isn’t traceable?

More: After court order, 3D-printed gun pioneer now sells pay-what-you-want CAD files (Ars Technica)

  • Gary F

    You do know people are legally making their own AR-15’s, don’t you?

    You buy an “80% lower”, then find a machinist who has a milling machine, then buy the AR parts, because they are made to military specs, they all fit, and, as long as you are handy, you build yourself an AR-15.

    Those are real guns, not these worthless single shot plastic guns that have been legal and on the internet for years.

  • Gary F

    “Wilson wasn’t asked an important question: What kind of person needs a gun that isn’t traceable?”

    Someone that doesn’t trust the Trump Administration.

    • Mike

      Yes, and one could make this same argument against the 4th Amendment: “What kind of person doesn’t want the government looking at their personal communications? What do they have to hide?”

      The Bill of Rights exists because the default position in a free society is that the government does *not* have a right to know and monitor everything.

    • Rob

      What does trusting or not trusting the T.Rump administration have to do with this issue?

  • Nikki

    I guess only the mentally ill need an untraceable gun.

    You can only believe this if you ignore the research that says otherwise, which seems like the popular thing to do.

  • AL287

    >>Wilson wasn’t asked an important question: What kind of person needs a gun that isn’t traceable?<<

    Yes, Cody Wilson, there are nefarious persons who would love to have an unregistered gun that isn't traceable, otherwise why would they go to the trouble to file off the serial number on a traditionally manufactured gun?

    Another case of a gun enthusiast crying "Foul!" because his right to carry a lethal weapon is being violated.

    If you're mentally stable with no criminal record, fine have all the guns you want, 3D and all.

    I'm weary of the worn out argument that guns don't kill people, people do.

    A gun in the hands of a mentally unstable person definitely kills people—-Las Vegas, Jacksonville, Sandy Hook, Parkland, San Bernardino, Columbine.

    But that's okay with the NRA. We have rights!

  • Erik Petersen

    Bob I’m going to do my best to not pollute your thoughtful threads with the crank tones of a RW gun guy (This gun guy is voting for Walz, BTW…)…

    … But this gun printing business is the biggest nothing burger there is, and one has to be very topically low info to think its important. Ya’ll are being trolled basically.

    These printed guns are hardly usable. They’ll never supplant factory made guns, printing one will never be more than a hobbyist fancy. They are not meaningfully ‘untraceable’ or ‘undetectable’. Among illicit guns, it will never be easier to print a gun than buy a ‘real gun’ on the black market.

    • Barton

      that is a fair point: you don’t even have to go to the black market to buy a ‘real gun’ with more ease than printing a plastic one.

    • BJ


      You use never in a way here that is not defensible.

      Currently isn’t cost possible would be better argument.

      Carbon fiber 3D printers are a thing. And maybe (maybe not) the price and availability will get to the point that they could be purchased for home use – to print a gun.

      • Erik Petersen

        How much does a carbon fiber 3D printer cost? Because I can go to Cabela’s and by an excellent mass produced Ruger auto loading pocket pistol for $300 rather than spend tens of thousands on the equipment to build a single shot printed pistol.

        I’m quite right to use ‘never’. Economic and practical considerations means the printed pistol will ‘never’ be something that policy minds should worry about re guns.

        • Angry Jonny

          $2k for a 42″ 720p LG plasma in mid 2000s. Today, a LG – 43″ Class LED 1080p is $250. Things change.

          • Erik Petersen

            Not at all the same. We’re talking about the thing that makes the things here, not the things

          • Angry Jonny

            The thing that makes the thing is a thing.

          • Erik Petersen

            youre making a category error

          • seedhub

            Tell that to Airbus. They 3D print about thirty tons of production parts every month, including things like titanium structural brackets.

          • Erik Petersen

            I’m sure they do. What does their 3d printer cost? Do they run down the street and get one at Best Buy when they need one?

          • seedhub

            It doesn’t matter how much the printers cost, if they’re cost-effective. And I don’t think Airbus is likely to “run down the street to Best Buy” for their conventional casting and milling equipment, either, so I’m not sure why that’s a criteria for their printing equipment.

          • Jay T. Berken

            Eight years ago, the electric utility that I work for thought it was novel to test out LED street lights on the system and thought LEDs would always be to expensive and never be implemented system wide. We now have a program to change out every public street light in city because they are more cost effective on energy and maintenance compared to the existing street lights even if only installed five years ago. Never say never.

        • Can the Cabela’s gun be traced?

          • Erik Petersen

            The wholesale transaction from Ruger in this example say to Cabela’s is maintained by Ruger, and is accessible to the ATF by request or subpoena. That’s your ‘trace-ability’, and its not an extraordinarily insightful piece of information.

            Firearms have a service life of more than 100 years now because of their innate durability, and most of this life past their first sale their serials are not recorded on transactions in a way that makes them ‘trace-able’ by law enforcement.

            Complete trace-ability in the way you guys imagine, and that you think printed guns lack, doesn’t actually exist. It would require a registration regime, which we do not have in this country and is basically a non-starter politically.

        • Jay Sieling

          Erik, Ruger Remington Browning et al. have patents on many of their creations. Is there any concern that 3-D printing could lead to infringements on those patents? That pirated or counterfeit models could be produced? (not all in plastic of course – but milled or cast from printed plans).

          • Erik Petersen

            There is not a great, new concern over patent infringement such that 3d printers could theoretically enable patent infringement. 3d printers are for prototyping, you’d go bankrupt trying to do production output on a 3d printer.

          • BJ

            That is patently not true. 3D printers in the past have been used for prototyping because of the speed and cost that it can do those things. Creating a prototype in a 3D printer is very cheap (compared to the cost of the printer), but as 3D printers have become cheaper and the material have become better the ‘goal’ has been to create 3D printers that can mass produce – guess what that has already happened.

          • Erik Petersen

            I’ve been too general or too absolute in various places here.

            I’ve been in the gun business and I have some machining aptitude. I don’t see how you’re going to print something like a slide or a lower in steel or aluminum as fast as you can machine or cast it.

            So, OK, you can do these things as you say. But time is money and time is volume. So at that point, I don’t see printers as suitable for firearms production work.

        • jon

          Yup, buying tools to make something is economically unsound… it’s why ruger and all the other gun manufacturers are out of business, they bought tools to make guns and it just didn’t make economic sense to do so…

          You don’t buy a 1/4″ drill bit just to own a quarter inch drill bit, you buy a 1/4″ drill bit for a nearly unlimited supply of 1/4″ holes.

          If it costs $10k to get a printer that can print guns that retail for $500 a piece, then you only need to print 20 of them to pay for the capital investment (more to cover material costs etc.)

          This isn’t about buying one printer to print one gun…. this is about having a near unlimited supply of guns. (or lower receivers with no serial number)

          • Erik Petersen

            You are way off point on another what I’d call category error and introducing a bunch of irrelevancies into the discussion.

            No one anywhere is arguing that the danger is mass production guns from 3d printers. People are arguing the danger is one offs that will evade detection and be untrace-able.

            You cant mass produce guns on 3d printers, this one guys observation about Airbus notwithstanding. Airbuses needs are not best described as mass production. Mass producing guns on 3d is not cost competitive with cnc machining them. AND… you can’t have a $300 gun product and mass produce it on 1 $10k manufacturing fixture. You’d be properly talking building it on 10 or 12 mfg fixtures range from tens of thousands to low hundreds of thousands in cost. And this is something I know about.

            The point is the expense of one offing a plastic gun in almost any case makes it not worth doing in any case, whether its a street criminal or a delusionist worried about a govt gun grab.

          • jon

            Who said mass produce? I said enough to cover the cost of the manufacturing equipment.

            and yes, $10k is plenty to get started manufacturing complex items, even out of metal, such as guns.
            either through traditional milling
            Or through additive manufacturing

          • Erik Petersen

            Again, I concede the irrelevant point you make

          • jon

            If the cost of the tools to make things is irrelevant why did you bring it up?

            And is every point you concede going to be labeled “irrelevant” after the fact?

          • Boys….

            You gonna make me pull over?

          • Erik Petersen

            I’m going to speak to people here in tones that are not harsh. Promise

          • Erik Petersen

            Cost of the tools is not a complete irrelevancy, but we’ve gone on a tangent that has confused whats what. I’m sure I helped confuse it.

            I do assert that the aspiring criminal or govt conspiracy theorist will never print their untrace-able gun because the cost and pain in the fanny factor are too high vs going to Cabela’s or buying one off the street. This includes the setup cost, everything. Plus the end product will suck.

            Literally, will never happen. I mean literally and never the way the dictionary wants you to use those words. No one will print a gun because its untrace-able like they really need the utility of an untraceable gun.

            Am I right or wrong?

          • jon

            I’m going to defer to @disqus_H2lw3muqRf:disqus way down the page here.

            “You do know people are legally making their own AR-15’s, don’t you?”

            If people are already doing it when it becomes easier I suspect more people will do it.

            And if I can do a group buy of a prusa (really nice thermoplastic/nylon 3d printer) for $600 and print out dozens of “not guns” lower receivers for a few cents in materials, seems like a lot more people are going to be doing that.

          • Erik Petersen

            Some amount of ‘more people’ building crappy guns as curios does not maketh a public policy crisis. Especially in comparison to the fairly low barrier for retail purchases of factory produced firearms. Its my informed guess that the amount of new guns retailed in this country a year might be 10 million units. The number of homebrewers who try to print one might get into the 4 figures, and these guns will not get into the illicit firearms stream. Mainly because they suck as compared to said factory made guns.

            I don’t think this is something people should have a serious public policy discussion about like it needs something done about

          • jon

            If we are going to have a conversation about gun control, than this is part of it, gun control is about ease of access… because we are at a point right now where I can get my “well regulated militia” (me and some guys I found on a gun forum) together and buy a $600 printer and each print out our own lower receiver.

            Now we can go online and buy the remainder of the parts for our AR-15’s and we now all have AR-15’s, and we can stop the comparison to mass produced weapons right there because these are for nearly all intents the same weapons.

            it’s cost effective (depending on what a lower receiver goes for right now, and how many guys I can conscript to my militia) and it’s easy.

            The whole conversation about control has been about ease of access, and this is no different.

            If we are going to have a conversation about high capacity magazines, and any one can print a hicap mag in a couple of hours, then we should have a conversation about that too.

            If there is a gun control debate to be had, the debate is about ease of access, and the ability to print a weapon, or a part of a weapon, or a magazine for a weapon, is all about ease of access.

          • Gary F

            But a plastic lower receiver would need many metal parts including a rifled barrel and breach that could withstand the explosion of the bullet. That’s why this plastic gun thing is a joke, the guns sound fun to make if you are a Popular Mechanics garage type of guy but these guns are dangerous and nearly worthless for holding up a bank or hijacking an airliner.

        • BJ

          Today a carbon fiber 3D printer runs about $5000 – the material for that sized weapon would cost about $30-50.

          Not 10s of thousands.

          That same type of equipment was $50,000 just 4 years ago, in another 4 years it could be down to $1500 or less. Although for doing carbon fiber the high temps and other things needed it will probably stay near the $3000 end.

  • kat

    I’m tired of this guy getting such a big platform and people thinking he debates his point well. Of course you can come up with whatever crap you want and put it on the internet- that doesn’t make it right and that doesn’t mean we can’t make laws that may cause your business to suffer. And as another commenter said- printable guns aren’t really that big of an issue.

  • Erik Petersen

    The war on CADs: Hey everyone, you know that in a ‘real’ gun factory the CNC milling machines that mill steel and aluminum are run off CADs right?

    • seedhub

      What is the “war on CADs”?

  • Erik Petersen

    Id love for one of the public policy geniuses here to expand on this notion of ‘untraceable”-ness for these printed guns.

    Why are they untraceable?

    • Barton

      Many guns are untraceable, due to our current laws, if you think that means tracked/logged/monitored/registered.

      I was thinking it also means: undetectable. Most facilities are set up with metal detectors for weapons (guns, knives, etc). Plastic is not detectable on these machines, obviously.

      • Erik Petersen

        These printed guns have steel barrels like anything else

        • Barton

          that I didn’t realize. So you still have to get a steel barrel with rifling? Then why bother? you can create a metal one-shot with the rifled barrel…

          • Erik Petersen

            Yes, you still have to have a steel barrel with rifling

          • jon

            No you don’t.

          • Erik Petersen

            I’ll defer to the engineering point that you make, that one can render a plastic barrel for these things that will last a couple shots. I’ll also acknowledge that you seem to talk about guns with a confidence of the informed.

            So that said…. maybe you like to nitpick me because I come off as obnoxious…. but how can you possibly take this Cody Wilson thing seriously like its worth being worked up over?

            You cant.

          • jon

            You can’t tell me what I can get worked up over, or how I feel about anything… please don’t try.

            You can’t.

          • Erik Petersen

            I can observe and comment persuasively that you’re underinformed, or don’t have a logical argument. Which you don’t.

            You’re nitpicking on some technical points that I’m happy to acknowledge and or concede, but you’re coming down on the side of ridiculousness.

          • One of the rules of NewsCut is to focus on an issue and state your side and try not to characterize other commenters. If everyone tries to adhere to this, we can slow our societal devolution. I realize it’s not always easy. But we try anyway.

    • Rob

      My understanding is that plastic guns are both undetectable and untraceable.

      • Erik Petersen

        They are not undetectable in xray or metal detector. They profile in xray and they have a steel barrel, like anything else.

        “trace-ability” is a function of the serialization and record requirements that are imposed on ‘real’ gun manufacturers.

        Hobbyists who do one offs have never had a serialization requirement imposed on them by the govt. That includes muskets, garage built ARs, and now these plastic things. But its to say, its a very overblown concern.

        • Rob

          If the 3D gun needs a steel barrel to be operable, it seems to me the media are being profoundly incorrect when they refer to it as a gun; it is instead a gun platform.

          • jon

            That’s because the “liberator” from Cody Wilson does not in fact have a metal barrel, and while the design does call for a metal firing pin, it doesn’t strictly need that either (in theory annealed plastics could do the job well enough for the few shots the gun would be good for.) and even the bit of metal called for in the plans is not as significant as people like to make it sound… it’s not an undetectable trace amount, but most non-airport metal detectors aren’t trying to pick up every bit of metal on a person, just anything big enough to be a (traditional) gun, or a knife…

        • The Resistance

          Technically they may be detectable in xrays and metal detectors. But I believe the current TSA success rate is around 20%.

  • Carol S.

    I recently saw a news story about the viability of these plastic guns, on the NBC evening news. After printing the gun, the reporter and story subject took the gun to a gun range, and with the owner of the range there, fired the gun at a target using a rigging system–not by hand. The bullet went about 10 feet, and gun essentially exploded. Had someone been holding it when it was fired, their hand would clearly have been injured.

    I know this type of technology always gets better with age/experience, but based on what I saw, as they exist now, I’m not sure these guns could do much damage to anyone but the user. I still don’t think they are a good idea, though.

    • Erik Petersen

      The technology is never going to get better here, because the rendering of the gun ‘form’ as done by a printer…. which makes things from epoxy and glue… is never going to be more robust than making one from steel and aluminum on a CNC milling machine. Printers are for quick prototyping. What you get from them isn’t terribly durable. Once you render your detailed prototype of whatever you are making, you write a CAD to mass produce it on a milling machine or a casting, which is durable

      You guys who are worried about this fail to have an understanding for a certain economy and etymology here. Factory guns are so good that no one would ever choose to use a printed gun because its ‘untraceable’. Printed guns will NEVER be a meaningful phenomena in crime. I bet we go a hundred years and the amount of murders done with printed guns you can count on one hand.

      • seedhub

        There are several different technologies for 3D printing metal directly — it isn’t all just “epoxy and glue.”

        • Erik Petersen

          You’re right. I was dumbing it down for the lay audience here, trying to use simple concepts within an individual argument.

          Whats the relative durability of 3d printed metal compared to barstock carbon steel?

          • seedhub

            So close as makes no difference. The mechanical properties of parts created with direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) are functionally equivalent to cast metal. Your argument is based on a really limited understanding of the technology.

          • Erik Petersen

            I think you’re capable of correcting me in several technical spots, yes. That does not make my observations about the economics wrong.

          • seedhub

            It does, actually, since your observations about the economics are based on your limited understanding the technology.

          • Rob

            Thanks, professor.

  • Rob

    I’ll be way more worried when high-quality, non-detectable, easily concealed, semi-auto pistols with non-detectable high-capacity clips that fire non-detectable rounds become available. But given our hollow culture, I know it’s only a matter of time until that day arrives.

    Wilson’s gun is mostly a joke, and is more about bringing in the Benjamins than enabling buyers to produce a useful firearm. My understanding is that the 3D gun is more likely to misfire and injure the user than it is to hurt others.

  • mgg

    I’m go out on a limb and suggest that the Founding Fathers never envisioned a country where a wizard’s speech would be accessible around the world instantaneously.

  • lindblomeagles

    Like drugs, guns is another one of those strictly American fascinations that makes no real sense. Even some of the most violent places in the world (see Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and other civil war torn places) aren’t as giddy as we are about owning firearms. And, in places like Syria, families need the weapons much more than we do. Even dumber is the lone fact that America, since winning the Revolutionary War, has never been invaded, has never been run by a dictator, and has had all of 1 Civil War, and that Civil War wasn’t about erecting a new government. That was about preserving the servitude of people from another country entirely. And yet, we still have millions of Americans, like this idiot, fearing some mythical ghost army rising up somewhere, presumably from New York City, Chicago, or some other bastion of American liberalism and multiculturalism, and taking their life and country from under their noses. Perhaps that fear has less to do with a country of laws, or the legend of 1776’s King George, and has more to do with the shame of how our country has treated other nations (Native American Indians, West African citizens, Cuba before and after Castro, Puerto Rico since last year’s Hurricane) and one another (School shootings, Race Riots, something while Black, sexual assault crisis, Presidential assassinations, John McCain’s passing, etc.) This is all I’m going to say today about this sorry state of affairs.

    • seedhub

      Well, if you ask the gun advocates, they’ll tell you the reason why we we’ve never been invaded, never been run by a dictator, and only had one Civil War is precisely because we have so many guns.

      • lindblomeagles

        Or, our American Presidents and system of government has done an excellent job of maintaining diplomacy, with the States, with foreign countries, and with citizens in general; the checks and balances our government system offers, beginning with local municipalities, county offices, states’ assemblies, and federal Senators and Representatives, along with an independent judiciary, itself leveled and tiered, provides both a more than adequate supply of local governance and much more CIVILIZED means of ironing out disputes.

        • seedhub

          I’m with you, believe me.

  • MarkUp

    Unless all the users on the internet are considered US Citizens, this seems like a clear violation of ITAR.

  • Jay Sieling

    I’ve been following this issue and having discussions in a Technology Ethics course for the last 5 or 6 years. It’s interesting that a wider audience is catching up.
    Bob makes a key point that this is really about technology expanding faster than the laws can keep up. I believe Mr. Wilson studied law, but left and started Defense Distributed in 2013. As he has developed this project, he has been careful to comply with applicable firearms laws. If I remember correctly, on of the hiccups he had in producing his first prototype was that the company that leased the printer to him revoked it when they learned the planned use. Once he secured a printer he was able to complete the “Liberator”.

    Technology has raced ahead as policy and legislation limps along. The big issues that will surround 3D printing will involve intellectual property rights and ethics. Already there are challenges to copyrights globally. There are a lot of questions to be considered with this technology – chief among them: just because we can do something, should we?

    It’s interesting as that was Mr. Wilson’s reply to the question of Scalia’s position that there ‘can be’ restrictions on the 2nd Amendment (presumably reading the “well regulated” laguage). Mr. Wilson remarked that just because it can be restricted doesn’t mean it should be. The equal question can be applied to 3d printing technology – just because we can print a firearm, or famous chess set, or a limited edition figurine, should we? An unethical act is not always illegal. It takes time for legislation to catch up to technology.

  • The Daily had a fantastic episode about this issue a few weeks back.

  • Erik Petersen

    Bob my tone is not THAT vituperative and trollish, I have a hard time understanding why I’m moderated on the hospital bill thread. What I said was not at all contentious.

    • I haven’t done any moderation today.

      It looks like Disqus algorithm automatically picked it off because of a restricted word, which — if I’m reading this correctly — was “paid off.”

      I can’t explain Disqus but your comment has been pushed out live.

      • Erik Petersen

        thank you

  • Paul Drake

    It’s not too difficult to find instructions on how to make meth, pipe bombs and zip guns with a quick Google search. You can find detailed information to grow hydroponic pot. In fact, there are stores that sell complete kits with everything but the plants or seeds to get home growers started.

    How are 3D plans, aka instructions, to print a gun any different?

  • Gary F
  • F4GIB

    No one could have imagined radio in 1789? No one. But we know that somehow the First Amendment s-t-r-e-c-h-e-d to include that “magic”. In D.C. v. Heller (2008) the Supreme Court stated firmly that the Second Amendment, like the First, is not bound by old technology.

    • Curiously , though, the literal translation of the second is not applied to the first. Thus the regulation of speech

      • F4GIB

        The wording of the Second Amendment is more restrictive. Perhaps for a reason?

        • It is translated more literally, for sure. The wording is pretty restrictive: ” Congress shall make no law….”

          • F4GIB

            “Translated”. What from Armenian?
            The Bill of Rights is written in English, no “translating” needed.

            The First Amendment expressly restricts the Congress. The language of the Second is much broader “shall not be infringed” by … any form of federal (post-Barron v. Baltimore) authority. The 14th Amendment eliminated the narrow scope of Barron and extended the protection of the Bill of Rights to block State action too.

          • Interesting that you say it needs no translation but then you cited a Supreme Court case that did exactly that. And, that, of course, is precisely the job of the Supreme Court. So, yeah, not so much self evident.

            For purposes of laws, Congress and the government are the same thing since there is only one legislative branch.