How 3D-Printed Guns Violate International Arms Controls (or Maybe Not)

Brian Fung

Finding itself at the crossroads of breakthrough manufacturing technology, gun control and international arms sales, the State Department has ordered the world’s first manufacturer of the 3D-printed gun to remove his blueprints from the Internet.

How did John Kerry's State Department get involved with the highly publicized ability to make a gun using 3D-printing? 

In a letter to Cody Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed, State Department officials alleged that the technical instructions for building the “Liberator”—a working plastic handgun—violated U.S. export controls on weaponry.

How? That’s because Wilson had posted the instructions to the Web, where virtually anyone in the world could download them and, in theory, print their own pistols—though as my colleague Philip Bump discovered, following through isn’t so easy.

Wilson has complied with the takedown request for now. But he's hinted at further challenges to the government’s decision. From his point of view, plans for the Liberator fall into a legal category that escapes regulation (more on this shortly).

“We’re quite familiar” with the rules, known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, Wilson told me.

Under ITAR, anyone who wants to sell weapons or related technical data to foreign agents has to do three things: 1) check to see whether the weapon appears in a document called the U.S. Munitions List; 2) if it does, register with the State Department; and 3) apply for an export license. The application has to describe what’s being sold, to whom, and for what purpose.

The Liberator is a one-shot handgun that fires a .380 caliber round—a type of weapon that would be found in the U.S. Munitions List, according to a State Department official. But here’s where it gets a little complicated. Wilson actually operates two companies—Defense Distributed, which simply deals with the blueprints, and a hardware manufacturer that prints his guns. While he took pains to register the second, he didn’t do the same with the first. And that’s the part that’s tripping him up.

None of this prevents Wilson from going through the process of registering Defense Distributed and applying for a license, even now. But the chances of Foggy Bottom actually granting him an export license aren't high. Since he's sharing his wares over the Internet, he'd essentially be applying to distribute the gun to every single person on earth.

“If I had asked for (permission), provided I ever got it back, the answer would have been ‘no,’” Wilson said.

Besides, Wilson seems confident that his designs are exempted from ITAR, anyway. He argues that ITAR doesn’t regulate publicly accessible technical information. If your designs are put on library or bookstore shelves (something Wilson has actually done), ITAR effectively passes you over. You can read the relevant sections of the regulation, 120.10 and 120.11, here for yourself.