3D Printed Gun Saga: Court Case Over CAD Files Settled

Can you create 3D printed designs and distribute them freely and without restriction? Maybe, and it’s likely to become easier in the future. A settlement has been reached in the saga of the US Department of State versus Cody Wilson, and beginning August 1st the Defense Distributed library of gun designs will once again become available.

Cody is well known for creating the first 3D printed gun. He went on to found Defense Distributed, a company that published designs and technical files for 3D printing firearms before being pulled into litigation that sought to curb the distribution of such plans by subjecting them to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) restrictions. Read that carefully, it’s the (international) distribution of CAD files at question here, and not the act of 3D printing, and Defense Distributed has been granted an ITAR exemption. Will other arms-related design files be similarly exempted? The settlement mentions upcoming rule changes seeking to make this type of exemption the standard.

As members of the Hackaday community, we’re the people to whom our friends and family turn for perspective when new technology makes it into their news feeds. Those with little or no exposure to 3D printing may easily fall to doom and gloom reports. But is this a story of doom and gloom? Absolutely not, guns are still guns and 3D printers are still 3D printers. Let’s take a look.

Same Old Argument, Different Day

There’s really nothing new to say on this topic. Yes, you could conceivably print a firearm on a 3D printer if you were really motivated. It might fire once or twice, or it might explode in your face. The age of clicking a button and pulling out a gun that is safe to fire and effective to use is still very very far in the future. As we all know, 3D printing is not to be feared.

Even the best 3D printing gurus aren’t able to print objects that will repeatedly contain a controlled explosion. A 3D printed gun is in nearly every way inferior to the one you could make by going to a gunsmith’s. On the other hand, there are remarkable, elaborate mechanisms and useful devices that are 3D printable. It’s unfortunate that it takes talk of a 3D printed gun for the general public to become aware of these incredible rapid prototyping tools, but it has happened and the best service we can do is help correct expectations of what the state of the art can accomplish. It’s much more interesting to talk about objects that are reasonable to 3D print.

Should You Be Able to Print a Latch for Your Dishwasher?

What’s really interesting to me about this case is the argument that these designs are free speech. If true, this means in the United States CAD designs should fall under protections afforded by the first amendment of the constitution. (If you’re looking for something to gnaw on in the comments, ditch the guns distraction and discuss that!). But because this is a settlement and not a ruling, the question of CAD as free speech wasn’t put to the test.

One of my go-tos when discussing 3D printing is to talk about my dishwasher since everyone either owns one or is already quite familiar with them. There are a lot of dishwashers, they are not standardized. When the plastic latch on your dishwasher breaks, what are your options? Call a repairman, have them come out and look at the problem, then order a part and pay for them to return a few weeks later to do the installation. What if that repairman had a 3D printer in their van and could fire it up while disassembling the appliance?

Whoa, whoa, whoa, you can’t just print that part. The company that manufactured the dishwasher surely must have an IP claim to it, right? I think that has already been solved, as aftermarket parts are widely available. So why not? Indeed, why not have the company supply the designs as a service to their loyal customers?

This saves so much time and expense. You don’t need to warehouse the parts, ship them great distances, or dispose of unused stock long after the life of the original units. You don’t have to wait for shipping on the repair or make repeat service calls. This is the most mundane example of 3D printing but an easy way to see the direct benefit. Dishwasher latches are simple plastic parts and that’s what 3D printing is best at right now.

Whether it’s a dishwasher latch, or something else, are we free to share design files we’ve created for physical objects? Of course we are. So how did this end up in the courts?

But… Guns!

This is a topic where it is almost impossible to stay out of ideological quicksand. But as I mentioned above, the important portion of this settlement is actually about CAD files… not 3D printing or guns at all.

Ars Technica has made the settlement document available (via their coverage). In this case it was  ITAR that was put to the test. ITAR restricts the export of defense-related technologies from the US. The settlement names 22 CRF 125.4 (13) as the exemption that covers the plans — “Technical data approved for public release (i.e., unlimited distribution) by the cognizant U.S. Government department or agency…”. Because this is an exemption requiring approval, it does not leave the door open for all future designs to escape the watchful eye of ITAR. But part of the settlement includes a commitment from the government to pursue rules changes that would exempt technical data like these CAD files from ITAR restrictions. Exactly what that means will remain a mystery until specific changes are actually proposed.

“The Liberator” design by Cody Wilson

Still not satisfied? Okay, I’d like to assuage the frequent concerns we’ve heard over years of covering 3D printed guns. These include the availability of guns to those who should not have them, and the appearance of untraceable and undetectable firearms. These are both valid concerns. But likely they are concerns on a very small scale right now because of the sheer difficulty of producing one, much less multiple high-quality units using current printer technology. 3D printing is nearly the worst way to acquire a gun. As for the untraceable and undetectable — this is a more general problem that there are people who seek out these particular traits. The thing to remember is that untraceable and undetectable guns already exist and are not new with the advent of 3D printing.

Be Proud and Be an Ambassador

Our motto? Print low-poly Pokemon, not guns. Or heck, print something useful like a project enclosure or a tourbillon.

We are ambassadors of 3D printing. This is an amazing tool available to anyone who wants to try out their creativity and make something that previously only existed as a bit of extruded plastic filament. That’s really cool! Show off the best benefits of this field, better inform the public about it, and we have nothing to fear when news bubbles up involving 3D printing.

89 thoughts on “3D Printed Gun Saga: Court Case Over CAD Files Settled

  1. “When the plastic latch on your dishwasher breaks, what are your options?”

    Well, if it is a Kenmore dishwasher, even replacement parts will not be stocked if/when Sears goes under.

    1. There’s a plastic piece inside of the recirc pump on my dishwasher. I has little wings that are meant to break up foot particles, but the part has worn down and those wings are hitting a screw inside of the motor assembly. It still works great, but it’s loud as heck. There is no replacement option for this part since it’s part of the motor assembly. The suggesting repair is to buy a new assembly for $250+ — one of the these days I’m going to print a replacement but I’ve been avoiding it since I need to pull the thing out from under the countertop and take the motor apart. Non-trivial. I wish the design for that part were already modeled.

          1. We have a Hog Ranch down the street, body disposal is free, cheap and easily done in the dark on the night. …
            Besides those hogs have become accustomed to their midnight snacks.

      1. I thought that noise (along with the noise made by “blenders”) was a necessary part of the process of breaking up food, caused by the sonic disruptor, am I misunderstanding how these things work?

      2. Hehehe, I bet that somebody now has a new understanding of the usefulness of being able to edit your post. :P

        Or maybe I should keep my foot particle out of my mouth?

        1. I recently had to replace the lower spray arm in my Sears Kenmore Elite dishwasher. It was a hodge podge of secondary spray arms and plastic gearing. One of the secondary spray arms broke, but this was not available as a component replacement – only the entire assembly. It was entirely plastic and after disassembling the broken one I did see that it could have been 3d printed. The replacement came in a Whirlpool box, leading me to believe that, Yes, there is some component and part commonality between different manufacturers. The darned thing was rather expensive. 3D printing parts like the subcomponent spray arm is going to gain in popularity, as well as 3D scanning of old, broken parts to streamline the printing process. I envision 3D printers being used to produce spray arms in greater multitude than guns, but guns make the news; spray arms do not.

      1. Speaking as someone who lives 15 minuets away from the town of Amana and has worked in an appliance warehouse I can confirm that the units come unbadged and they just ship sheets of stickers to the warehouses to be applied as retailers make orders, Amana, Kenmore, Whirlpool and probably some more I’m forgetting are all totally interchangeable with just a different booklet and badge.

  2. I do see this as an attempt for government(s) to restrict the distribution of any Intellectual Property or something that circumvents IP. (a homonym/synonym of an actual part) Too many corporations stop producing replacement parts, not because their isn’t a demand for them, but to create demand for the newer model.

    1. You could make that claim, but really, it’s just that warehousing the parts is a major cost. Manufacturers are required to make replacement parts for a certain number of years, but they really can’t tell in advance how many of those parts will be needed, so they have the choice of making and storing more than will ever be needed, or retaining the tooling required for subsequent production runs. Neither is particularly lucrative. I think most manufacturers would be happy to provide CAD models, if this would relieve them of the burden of maintaining stock of out-of-production parts.

      1. Aaaactually, they know approximately how long and which parts will fail. After all, they designed them to fall apart. Planned obsolescence is real, and it’s disgusting. However, It’s just good business sense.

      1. i think their level of caring at the federal level is slim to nonexistent but what they do seem to care about is the information on how to make weapons (as if that genie is easy to put back in the bottle). It seems as if this entire episode revolves around the government being pissed that their narrative was challenged by some dude on the Internet and they wanted to try some how to shut him up.

        I find it most amusing that Mr Wilson is trying to build a library with the intention of being federally recognized so that he can get access to the military drawings for their guns.

        1. You can download AR-15 lower receiver CAD files off GrabCAD and many other “open source sites”. And from those you can make a unregister lower receiver.

          And there are plenty of contract for hire machine companies that will cut your custom lower out of aluminum, titanium, or whatever. Yes you can pass another stupid law, say ITAR #xyz47b over and over and over. Make downloading gun CAD files the equivalent offense of say child porn. Won’t stop hardly any of us from making our our guns. Because if you can’t find it, you can’t prosecute it.

          And then there is this pesky bill of rights thing we call the 2nd amendment, which liberals believe they can abolish. Not a chance and even if you did, 400 million guns still exist. And those are the ones we know about. Millions of others that there is no record of what so ever. With millions more being created.

          Furthermore, there are 3D printers from manufacturers like Markforged and Statasys that can 3d print aircraft quality aluminum or titanium. They make great 80% lowers, almost as good as CNC milling machines can. Statasys sells a machine that IS BOTH and additive #D printer of metal as well as a subtractive CNC milling machine TODAY. In fact the machine Cody used to make his 3d guns was a Statasys

          How do you think the designers of guns make their prototypes, Santa’s elves? No they use these same technologies. ny decent CNC machine can make the lower receiver of any gun, You can even make an AR-15 lower without such things. I have seen them made with aluminum flatware and hand tools.

          And of course there are always ‘zip guns’ google that, been around for decades.

          So like all technology this trickles down to the desktop, hobbyist, etc. We are experiencing a manufacturing revolution where if you can CAD it, you can have it. Thew notion that you can regulate CAD files, and then also ENFORCE those regulations is asinine. Especially in a country where 70% of violent crimes go unprosecuted.

          Can’t find 20 million illegal aliens, can’t solve 1/2 the murders that do occur, but 400 million guns, another 1,000,000 unregistered ones… Those people think they can find and make not exist. Not a chance. Separate the rabid ideology from this and it is readily apparent you are not even going to put much of a dent in this. Nor have they. In fact the magazines ban only sold MORE magazines, exact opposite effect they were going for. And everytime the anti-gun people open their mouths, the gun industry sets another monthly sales record. Sane people would just stop talking, that isn’t going to happen either… So I expect we will blow past 400 million guns, another million or so ‘ghost guns’ to 5M and 2M by 2020, regardless how you ‘feel’ that is what is going to happen.

    1. If the government cared, they’d make it easier for the law abiding gun owners, and leave it to the fact that ‘Good fences with armed people behind them make good neighbours’

  3. People get so worked up about this kind of thing because it sounds scary and futuristic. As you say in the article, we’re years away from being able to print a reliable weapon at home (at least with the printers most of us have at home). Using subtractive methods is quite realistic today though, and has been for many years.

    Doesn’t sound as high-tech/futuristic/scary though, so I guess it’s not interesting?

    1. Even when those 3d gun-printers of legend become real, a regular metal lathe is going to still be plenty more “dangerous.” Nobody is freaking out about lathes though. Or a drill for that matter. Any of those can put a hole in metal and make a gun a hundred times more effective than some PLA piece of shit.

      But this is really about the buzzword attached to it. People care about 3d printing and violent spectacle, not ancient machine tools and violent spectacle.

        1. Show me 10 people that have access to an SLS-Printer without anyone questioning them about why they’re printing a gun and possibly calling the local finest on them.

      1. I think that’s because to operate a lathe takes some skill and training to use, and significant practice to make anything resembling a firearm.

        The fear is any yahoo with a 200 dollar 3D printer from Amazon can press ‘Go’ and get a zip gun. Of course, we realize that isn’t realistic, but tons of people don’t and are just afraid. Fear is the mind killer.

        1. Any idiot with a metal lathe can make a single-shot, smoothbore zip gun. Making a proper gun is a lot harder, but that’s not really what we’re talking about when comparing to 3D printed guns anyway.

    2. Is anyone really getting worked up about this?

      What’s so scary about buying an unreliable $500 tool to in order to spend hours making a primitive firearm, when you can just go to Wal Mart in Hicksville, TX and get a mass manufactured one for $500?

      1. Except that when you walk into that Wal Mart store, there are all kinds of records of the gun, who bought it etc etc.
        A 3d printed gun has no serial number and no records anywhere and that’s why its more of a problem (at least in the eyes of governments and law enforcement agencies that want this stuff banned)

          1. It’s the potential, not the current tech, that is the problem. If given time, the tech inevitably improves. They want to shut it down, or severely impair it, to slow or stop the tech from advancing. It isn’t about building guns made of plastic. What scares them is a genius figuring out how to print with stronger materials cheaply, like metal or composites. It’s not an if, it’s a when. 3D printing was off the table to home brew guys until about 10 years ago when it took off. It wasn’t a threat till the design and components became cheap enough that a half inbred in the hollar had a $100 kit capable of making something that could hurt themselves, if not others. We always end up losing the cool stuff nevertheless.

  4. You young whippersnappers! You didn’t live through the PGP Crypto wars!

    PGP was considered a munition under the SAME ITAR RULES and Phil Zimmerman who wrote it suffered as a result, as well as something ironic – you can publish a book and fax it as that was covered under the 1st Amendment, but you couldn’t place the PGP source or binaries where they could be downloaded.

    That changed.

    The same argument, “But Guns!” was “But Kiddie Porn! Drug Dealers! Terrorists!” (there was a 4th horseman but I don’t remember it from the Cypherpunks list).

    There is no technological solution to evil or vice. That must be moral. And freedom is better than attempts to use force or censorship (either deplatforming or legal threats) to remove someone you disagree with. Find better arguments. Find better evidence. The first one using or suggesting the use of force is the real Nazi.

  5. You can print yourself a gun, but you cannot print an ammunition. In my country, I need a permit to obtain a firearm and ammunition designed for it. Maybe I can print a gun, but how I will be able to get some ammo? Its not that easy

        1. That was modern. Out of modern steel, made with modern machining…
          (Completely) 3D printed plastic firearms and manually measured out black powder seem to me like a really bad combo.

          Using the 3D printer to make the specific gun-making tools instead seems like better way of not blowing your fingers off :P

          1. They already have some that are mostly composite plastics it isnt a stretch for a muzzleloader to have a few metal parts and the rest plastics. The modern powders are not explosive and are pretty slow burning compared to the powder in .45 encased shells.

    1. Make your own. Charcoal, saltpeter, and sulfur can make a pretty good powder. Primers are harder, but you could flint lock style or use blanks for starting pistols or bits from signaling flares. Really, people have been doing that for decades without 3d printers, just using pipe and other scavenged items.

      1. Have you actually tried that or are you just parroting the myth?
        Usable black powder is HARD to make, especially if you expect any repeatability. It’s not enough to just grind everything and then mix it together, you also have to wet the finished mix and grind that again. Unsafe (even the pros would have problems with this step going boom) and time consuming.

        1. Now that’s funny. It’s not rocket science, it’s pyrotechnics. Grinding? Try ball mill for the high-tech version, dextrin for the lower tech & nothing but mortar n pestle for Bacon level.

          1. Technically if you’re making black powder rockets…it is! :P
            But in all seriousness, DIY black powder that’s good enough to fire guns with is no joke, it’s both a science and art form. The key here is repeatability, if your powder burn rate varies even within the same batch, it’ll be borderline useless, as it would make the firearm extremely inaccurate.

  6. it’s sort of humorous that almost everyone keeps showing the little plastic 3D printed gun when in fact what I saw was a full-blown 1911 metal printed gun, fully functional fully operational and durable. I’ve been wanting an AR-15 so I sort of hope he comes out with those plans :-)

    1. Depending on your jurisdiction and laws, you could probably just buy one that was 3D printed out of metal on a laser sintering machine. The only issue is it is printed on a million dollar machine that still requires machining afterwards and will cost you many times the cost of an off the shelf one and will likely also have more porosity than a standard machined part would. So not only would it cost a great deal more even assuming you could get the plans for free, it still wouldn’t even be as good as a standard commercial product.

    2. Plans for the AR-15 lower and upper receivers are all over the interwebs. Not much of a worry about them blowing up either as 99% of the boom is contained by the barrel and the bolt.

  7. I think we could see a place both for free speech designs to be passed around, but wouldn’t it also be fantastic if our companies had a way to publish factory spec models once they were no longer creating them so they could cash in on their work when the piece breaks. In the case of the dishwasher latch from the article, or the water pump impeller wings from the comments I am sure that if they could pay a dollar or euro to print a replacement part from engineered specs they would jump at the chance. Then at some point, the prices drop or the plans go truly free (beer) and (speech).

    I also see a place for a fair use clause in ITAR for allowing professional engineers to profit off of scanning and modeling parts for all durable equipment after the manufacturer’s warranty for the last production run expires. That might be one way to sunset planned obsolescence.

  8. This isn’t really about 3D printing. It’s about computer aided milling machines and their input files.

    DD has been selling a simplified milling machine capable of turning an “80%er” into an AR15 lower receiver.

    The significance here is that the lower receiver is where the serial number goes. Under current law, *all* of the rest of the parts are unencumbered and can (more or less) be bought from eBay with no gun control ramifications at all. It’s the lower receiver that is special. An “80%er” is a block of starting metal that has had no more than 80% of the milling operations performed to make it a lower receiver, and those too are unencumbered. DD is selling a milling machine that ostensibly has uses beyond gunsmithing, which makes it something the government cannot suppress. The files to control the mill are software, which takes us back to US v. Bernstein and arguments about whether code is speech, which here the commerce department has effectively conceded that it is.

    All of that basically moots gun control. All the government can do is make the act of milling your own lower receiver illegal (California has already done so), which is more or less unenforceable.

  9. >> As for the untraceable and undetectable — this is a more general problem that there are people who seek out these particular traits.

    Hyperbole and distraction.
    Even if there were no metal (there is) in a plastic printed gun, a pat down, millimeter wave scanner, or X-ray will detect it. Yes it would be nice if people didn’t want to assassinate and murder but so long as there is society there will be a few that do.

    Some of the same legislators who want to control CAD models also want to control computer code (PGP famously, as [tz] pointed out), the right to repair your devices, and they want to ban certain numbers because they correspond to DVD / Blu-ray encryption keys. Society needs to decide how to protect intellectual property without writing draconian laws with far reaching unintended consequences. Applying ITAR to small arms is an over reach. Even if these guns were as good as their metal counter parts, the designs are already out there. The cat is out of the bag.

    The cases alluded to above are all combating the same dangerous ideas from different angles. You deserve to get paid for your work, but information wants to be free.

  10. Do you know why the US will never ever file a case against me like this? Because I care too much, just because I can, does not mean I should. I am able to design bombs, weapons (I do part time on the side for 3rd party agency), but I dont make this stuff public because, although I do design this stuff, I like to think I still hold on to some moral compass. So it may be legal to do a lot of things, but should you? you can have free press and still be a piece of sh*t

  11. Come and move to a safe place like NJ comrades. Gunsmithing w/o a license is a crime. 80% parts are off the menu and flintlocks are treated as the same as modern firearms.

    There’s actually more than that, but decades of some of the most restrictive gun laws in the US & this state still has some amazingly dangerous areas with not even the slightest signs of ever getting better. You can at least rejoice that our taxes are going up and people are fleeing the state.

  12. >>> As members of the Hackaday community, we’re the people to whom our friends and family turn for perspective when new technology makes it into their news feeds.

    If only this were the case. I feel that there would be a lot less misinformation, overreaction, and general panic, if people did turn to the more technologically inclined for info and explanation. In my experience people tend to turn to their favourite sensationalist news source, random friend, or the first Google search result, whenever anything like this makes news. It seems like common sense (surprisingly uncommon it seems) has fallen victim to the rabid anti-intellectualism and general fear of ‘hacking’ and anyone who knows more than the average Joe about anything technical or scientific (and many other fields).

  13. The fundamental problem re perception here is that when the general public hears “3D printed guns”, they envision the scene in The Matrix where Neo says “We’re going to need guns… lots of guns”, at which point they fly in en masse. I’m a gun control advocate, but I don’t see how 3D printed guns are a real threat to civil society. If we lived in the world of Star Trek with instant replicators, then the argument might make sense. That said, a person with minimal know-how can make dozens of pipe-bombs in the time taken to print this gun. Let’s also keep in mind that the potential of home-printed guns does not change the legality of various firearms or owning them (however they are obtained).

  14. Can someone identify the right tool, or 3d print it ?
    Please excuse my lack of correct technical terms…

    Plumbing. Taps [faucets]. Inside tap heads, there’s a [thin] hexagonal nut with screwdriver-type grooves on opposite sides.
    This nut holds the [plastic] handle on, and is threaded onto the stem [spindle?].
    Getting these nuts out can be a major pain, The stem interferes with any screwdriver you try to use, and the plastic handle prevents use of most hexagonal socket wrenches.

    The closest I’ve seen to a tool is: https://www.bunnings.com.au/kinetic-spout-and-handle-repair-kit_p4920385

    If the hex nut to be removed is corroded, or the slots in the top are worn, then the little lever tool isn’t strong enough for the job.

  15. “Guns don’t kill people…” Even in a society without guns, people still get killed. Guns are simply tools. Tools just make a job simpler, easier. The same results, can be obtain in many different ways. I’m not a big fan of automatic, or semi-automatic weapons, as then tend to bypass part of the learning process. The part, were the gun enthusiast, needs actually go out and practice, learn the skills to actually hit the target consistently, get the job done, with the fewest rounds fired. Just pointing a gun in the general direction, and keep firing until you score, like in the video games, or the clip runs dry, is irresponsible. Where are all those bullets going to land, when you miss? Never seems to matter in the movies, or video games, but it does in real life.

    Consequences? Those that kill, are seldom executed, least not for many years (more than 10 years). They are kept safe from the general prison population, several of who are probably will to speed up the process, free of charge. Eventually, when the day comes, it’s done almost in secret, privately, peacefully. How did they pay any debt to society, how did anyone benefit? We got to house m feed, and protect them for a decade or more. His tax paid lawyers made a good living, for most just the timely filing of the required papers, to keep the paychecks rolling in. We get to pick up the tab, for a court system, to keep revisiting the case, that should have been resolved the following morning…

    I don’t think 3d printed guns, or any other home made firearm, is really intend to be used, over and over, eventually handed down to your oldest child. They are basically better than nothing at all, and hopefully never needed. If you do use it, safer to just make another one, probably better designs by then anyway. How come there aren’t 3D printed ammo to go with? Why stop at the hardware, when you should be able to feed it cheap too….

  16. I remember Cody Wilson saying that the big problem with the government claiming that the CAD files fell under ITAR was that ITAR is, fundamentally, an intellectual property law. The government was essentially saying that these CAD files belonged to the US Government, and was in effect *their* intellectual property, and they were not allowing them to be distributed. That was pretty interesting, and gives some additional context to the legal tussle.

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