The Liberator, 3-D printed gun
31 May 2013
by Ryan Dunn
The world’s first gun made entirely by 3D printing was last month successfully fired in Texas, USA. The handgun, named ‘The Liberator’, is assembled entirely from ABS plastic parts printed by a commercially available printer – the only exceptions being a metal nail used as a firing pin and a 175g metal core that to comply with US laws prevents the gun from evading metal detectors. The gun was developed by Defense Distributed, a Texas based libertarian non-profit group founded by University of Texas law student Cody Wilson, that describes themselves as ‘aiming to defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms’ through ‘information and knowledge related to the 3D printing of arms’. Wilson states that his intention is to explode all gun laws by providing digital blueprints of guns including The Liberator online for consumers to download and print themselves. Following the successful test fire, Defense Distributed made the CAD files for the Liberator available on their file sharing website Defcad and by the time the site was closed at the request of the US Government the design files had been downloaded 400,000 times. Most of these downloads will not reach physical form but with commercial 3D printers now available for as little as £400, have we entered a unsettling new world in which possibility of homemade guns has been made a reality?
3D printing, or ‘additive/rapid manufacturing’ as it is known within the design industry, is a manufacturing process by which 3D objects designed on computer can be printed by building up successive layers of material to create intricate physical objects. 3D printing allows objects to be manufactured with a level of precision unobtainable through many older manufacturing techniques and the creation of complex solid forms that would otherwise need to be assembled in separate parts. Previously, the cost of 3D printing and the fragility of the materials used meant that the process was largely confined to making prototype models for conventional manufacturing. However, during the past decade as the price of 3D printers has dropped substantially and the materials available has grown to include thermoplastics, ceramics and metal alloys, 3D printing is increasingly used to create bespoke final objects that range from medical equipment or aerospace components through to consumer products including sunglasses, chairs, and now guns.
Nearly forty years ago Victor Papanek observed that “there are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them.” In the light of this statement, can The Liberator therefore be viewed as the latest example of the destructive nature of industrial design and the irresponsibility of designers? Asked by the BBC if he felt any sense of responsibility about whose hand the gun might fall into, Wilson replied “I recognise the tool might be used to harm other people – that’s what the tool is – it’s a gun.” The idea of supplying consumers with the blueprints to print their own weaponry, ensuring widespread availability of guns to anyone with access to a 3D printer may strike many people as an especially harmful use of industrial design. However, as a self-described libertarian who admires Julian Assange, Wilson contends that “this is a much bigger deal than guns; it has implications for the freedom of the web.” To reiterate this anti-authority message the Defense Distributed website declares: “This project might change the way we think about gun control and consumption. How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the Internet? Let’s find out.”
Arriving in the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and amid America’s bitter debate over whether the government should place increased restrictions on citizens’ rights to own arms, The Liberator has raised questions about personal freedom in the age of the Internet and the effectiveness of gun control measures in the face of new technology. The ‘Wiki weapon’ can be downloaded by individuals and printed at home, bypassing gun restrictions or the need to possess a firearms licence. Wilson, who believes that citizens should have the right to own implements of war argues, “I think the future is openness to the point of the eradication of government. The state shouldn’t have a monopoly on violence; governments should live in fear of their citizenry.”
3D printing places few limitations on the form or structure of the objects that can be produced, and removes the need for investment in expensive tools or machinery, allowing individuals to manufacture complex designs at the click of a button anywhere in the world. Advocates of 3D printing have made spectacular predictions about the benefits that the technology will bring about – mass customisation of consumer products, the end of traditional supply chains, and the blurring of the line between service and manufacturing sectors. However, technological progress often has a nasty habit of biting back at people through unforeseen consequences of its innovations – for example microbial resistance to antibiotics, financial crashes and global warming. Throughout the modern age people, institutions and governments have had to adapt themselves continuously to new systems of production, transport and communication, and in the present day we are still coming to terms with the impact of the IT revolution on our daily lives and the new possibilities for communication, finance and democracy offered by the Internet. Consider that five years ago few people would have predicted the revolution enabling qualities of social media or that the Twitter hash tag would subsequently become a symbol of dissent from New York to Cairo. As design commentator John Thackara points out “Our dilemma is that small design actions have big effects – often unexpectedly – and designers have only recently been told, with the rest of us, how incredibly sensitive we need to be to the possible consequences of any design steps we take.”
The dark side of 3D printing, represented by The Liberator, is that organised criminal gangs could potentially produce their own undetectable plastic guns using blueprints downloaded from online databases such as Defcad. Defense Distributed launched Defcad earlier this year as the “the world’s first unblockable open-source search engine for all 3D printable parts”. Defcad follows in the footsteps of established 3D file sharing network Thingiverse; however whereas objects on Thingiverse are user created and published under Creative Commons licence, Defcad (if and when it reopens) will exist as a Pirate Bay style database for illicit sharing of blueprints for copyrighted objects. The ease at which digital files for objects ranging from guns parts through to medical equipment can be transferred from peer to peer across file sharing sites presents the same problems of digital piracy for producers of 3D goods that have concerned the music and film industries for some time: how to create value from intellectual property in the digital age?
The Liberator has created headlines around the world, but the real story here is in the blurring of the old roles of designer and manufacturer, consumer and hacker, that might be brought about by 3D printing. Within 20 years, widespread home ownership of 3D printers could become a reality as the capabilities of the machines improve and prices reduce. However, despite these advances in technology, the ability to manufacture a reliable gun (or indeed any functional objects) using 3D printing is still a long way off for the home user. As Cody Wilson admits, “Printing a gun is the least effective way of obtaining a firearm”. It is also unlikely that consumers will have either the inclination or the skills required to design unique objects themselves. Instead, the foreseeable future where people will be most aware of 3D printing in the mainstream, is likely to be in boutique factories or high street retailers; establishments that produce customised versions of branded products for the discerning customer – furniture, electronics and jewellery. Maybe one day even guns.