Despite banning 3D-printer gun blueprints, the U.S. government posts gun designs online

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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The U.S. government has blocked the dissemination of 3D-printer gun blueprints despite the fact that, courtesy of the U.S. government, many other firearm-related designs are already freely available online.

Defense Distributed, the organization behind the world’s first 3D-printable gun, was ordered by the State Department last week to take down the digital blueprints of the device.

Federal gun laws are enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco, a Justice Department agency. But the State Department inserted itself into the 3D-printer debate by invoking the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITARs).


The ITARs make it unlawful to export weapons, and the technical data for weapons, without approval from the State Department.

Defense Distributed, which is not classified as a weapons manufacturer, announced on Twitter it had “gone dark” and was removing its weapons files at the behest of the State Department.

“Until further notice, the United States government claims control of the information,” said the organization on its DEFCAD site.

But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), which is an agency of the Department of Commerce, has been making patents accessible online free of charge since 2010. These often consist of descriptions and drawings of the invention, which may as a set of instructions on how to construct the invention.

Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Daily Caller that “you can get a wide variety of detailed plans for building weapons” at the USPTO’s website.

Opsahl, whose organization advocates for digital rights, said that “concerns are overblown” about the 3D-printer gun designs because “there’s plenty of information that is available, and has been available for years, on how to make weaponry, and society has dealt with that.”

“The first machine gun patent is online,” he said. “If you want things that are relatively low-tech, you can go back a hundred years and get the patents for the first semi-automatic handgun.”  

Internet users have access to over seven million patents through the USPTO patent search engine, which also allows users to search international patents. The search engine for the USPTO’s site also allows users to research patents related to firearms.

A search for “gun” in the search engine for example, reveals over 2.5 million search results in under 0.3 seconds; a search for “handgun” reveals over six thousand results in 0.33 seconds.

Even prior to the patents being posted online, the public could — and still can — request physical copies of the patents from the USPTO.

“The plans for how to create guns have been available for a long long time at the patent office,” said Opsahl. 

Unless a secrecy order prevents the publication of a patent or patent application, the public can even request copies of the file containing the application and related correspondence from the USPTO.

A government official told The Daily Caller that “most patent applications filed on or after November 29, 2000, will be published 18 months after the filing date of the application.”

Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, a proponent of stricter gun laws, called for a ban on 3D-printed guns last week. State legislators in California, New York and Washington, D.C., also began looking to ban the new technology.

3D-printing, or additive manufacturing, has existed in an industrial capacity since the 1980s.

It is used for the rapid prototyping and full-scale manufacturing from computer-designed blueprints, as well as the creation of manufacturing tools, through the layering of complex materials such as plastic.

3D-printer files, like any other file on a computer, are software made up of lines of computer code. Computer code instructs a computer how to behave.

In recent years, the 3-D printing technology has become more affordable, making it accessible for small businesses and hobbyists to purchase. It is even attracting popular attention for its potential to disrupt traditional manufacturing.

For example, the RepRap project developed an open-source self-replicating 3D-printer, called the RepRap, in order to provide people with a low-cost machine for home use.

Far-out ambitions — like the printing of food, and human skin — have even been postulated. The MIT Self-Assembly Lab, in partnership with Minneapolis-based 3D-printer company Stratasys, is developing 3D-printed materials that can be programmed to self-assemble after being printed.

Obama hailed 3D-printing’s virtues during his annual State of the Union Address in February, pointing to successes the National Additive Manufacturing Innovative Institute in Youngstown, Ohio.

The NAII, which is a federally-funded lab studying 3D-printing, was founded in August 2012. First announced in March 2012, the Youngstown facility as the first of 15 of these types of labs.

United States Special Operations Command and DARPA, the Defense Department’s highly-imaginative research arm, have even sought out their own 3D-printers.

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