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3D-printable guns and why export controls on technical data matter

3D-printable guns and why export controls on technical data matter
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New developments in the 3D-printable gun case have revived the debate on the dangers of 3D-printing of firearms and the sharing of their electronic blueprints online. While these developments may only have a limited immediate impact on the proliferation of small arms, this approach has the potential to undermine controls on 3D printing and export controls on technical data more broadly.


In 2013, Cody Wilson, an American law student and gun rights activist and his non-profit firm ‘Defense Distributed’, developed and tested the first 3D-printable gun. The so-called ‘Liberator’ gun, is made entirely from 3D-printable plastic, a bullet and a nail. When Defense Distributed published the computer-aided design (CAD) files online for anyone to download, the US Department of State ordered the firm to take the files off its website. They argued that making such files available constitutes an export of technical data required for the production or manufacture of an export controlled item on the United States Munitions List (USML). After complying with the order and multiple unsuccessful attempts to obtain the required licence, Wilson and other gun-rights advocates sued the Department of State for violating their freedom of speech and right to bear arms under the first and second amendments to the US constitution. In a move that surprised many export control experts, the US Government settled the case in June. The Department of State committed to introduce legislation to amend the existing regulations, while in the meantime enacting a temporary amendment that allows Wilson to publish the files in question without further restraints and to make a payment of nearly US $40 000 to the plaintiffs.


Background to export controls

In general, the manufacturing of small arms for personal use is legal in the United States. However, the export of firearms requires registration with the Department of State and an export licence under the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR). This licensing requirement applies to assembled guns, key parts like the lower receiver, as well as to the technical data required to develop, produce, operate or repair an item that is described in the USML.

The USML is based on the Munitions List of the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies, an international regime that prescribes the military items to be covered by export controls in all participating states. Controls on technology have been a central part of export controls dating back to the cold war export control arrangements. Today’s Munitions List (ML) of the Wassenaar Arrangement covers technology that is required, among others, for the development, production, operation or repair of an item on the list.  As the 3D-printable guns in question fall under Category I of the USML, the digital build files Defense Distributed wishes to share on its website are covered as technical data required for the production or manufacture of controlled defense articles.

Enforcing controls on intangible transfers of technology, such as the sending of digital files via e-mail or the sharing of data using cloud computing services, is inherently difficult. Making such technical data available for anyone to access and potentially download, including to persons in a different country—rather than actively transferring them—is also covered by export controls. While there has been some debate on the complexity and significance of the technical data necessary to justify the application of controls, CAD files or other digital blueprints that clearly enable the 3D printing of a controlled item have been covered by existing controls.


The settlement

Many news articles have characterized the settlement as a ‘loss’ for the US government or as a ‘win’ for the free speech argument brought by Wilson and the other plaintiffs. However, the settlement includes no admission of guilt and at this point it is unclear why the US government decided to settle the case.

Under the settlement agreement, the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC), the responsible directorate at the Department of State, commits to propose a draft for a new rule and ‘fully pursue’ a final rule ‘revising USML Category I to exclude the technical data that is subject of the action’. While this suggests that the government pursues a permanent change of this regulation in the future, the settlement also included provisions with a more immediate effect. The Department of State approved the immediate public release of the specific technical data subject to the case using a licence exemption and later published an announcement on the DDTC website on 27 July, issuing a temporary modification of USML Category I that excludes the technical data subject to the settlement from controls until a final rule is developed. Wilson in turn announced that he will again make the technical data for several small arms and components thereof available in a database from 1 August, also allowing others to upload their own files. Despite this announcement, Defense Distributed has already started to make some of their files available several days prior to 1 August.

Several gun-control activists and groups, as well as a number of US politicians and Attorneys General have initiated legal actions and legislative initiatives since the settlement was made public in July. A federal judge first dismissed the request submitted collectively by gun-control groups to intervene and stop the provisions of the settlement from coming into effect. Several Attorneys General from US states and cities have issued cease and desist orders directing Wilson to block access to the website for their constituents, first resulting in the website being blocked for users in Pennsylvania. On 31 July, a Washington district judge issued a temporary restraining order against the Department of State, stopping it from implementing the modification of USML Category I until a hearing set for 10 August, forcing Wilson to once again take down the files. While the legal battle over the distribution in the US therefore seems to be far from over, it is worth considering what the developments in this case mean for the control of small arms more generally.


Implications for small arms control

The potential impact on small arms proliferation depends on how these developments change the current situation and which factors may mitigate its impact. First, although they were no longer hosted in Wilson’s database any more, the build files for the Liberator were still available online. When the files were originally posted in 2013 they were downloaded over 100 000 times. After they were removed from the website they continued to be available on many illegal file-sharing websites. Despite their availability, no game-changing developments in the illicit small arms market, terrorist acquisitions, uses in assassinations or for the circumvention of metal-detector controls have been observed.

Second, there is still a lack of capabilities, especially of polymer-based 3D-printed small arms or key parts such as receivers or pressure bearing components. The limited durability of the Liberator only enables it to fire a very small number of shots before components need to exchanged. In addition, the poor handling combined with reliability and safety issues provide an abundance of reason for an actor to choose another option.

Third, the costs of obtaining printers that work with high-quality materials remains high and both the production costs and efforts involved likely still do not provide an adequate substitute for black market acquisitions. Furthermore, illicit small arms in circulation are often neither marked, nor serialized and are thus similarly ‘untraceable’ as 3D-printed guns. New ways of regulating the sale and serialization of 3D-printed guns should nevertheless be developed.

Finally, the often-cited advantages regarding undetectability only apply for small arms made entirely from plastic and walk-through metal detectors. They do not apply to common X-ray scanners and both ammunitions and necessary metal components make detection more likely. While the availability of 3D-printed gun files may thus only have a limited immediate impact on the proliferation of small arms, it should be considered which implications this approach may have for controls on 3D printing and the control of technical data more broadly, both legally and in terms of the signal it sends.


Controls on 3D printing and sharing of technical data

The broader question underlying the case is on the approach to controls on the distribution of technical data for controlled items, the regulation of which forms one of the key aspects of controls on 3D printing and export controls more generally. Controls on 3D printing currently have three main elements: (a) controls on 3D printers, (b) controls on materials for 3D printing, and (c) controls on technical data for the production or manufacture of controlled items using 3D printing. 3D printers are inherently dual-use (usable both for civilian and military purposes) and are rarely covered by controls. Even if controls on a wider range of printers were to be developed, these would not be able to cover the capability range required for small arms production without creating major adverse effects on the growing 3D printing industry. New controls would most likely use performance parameters that only apply to a very limited range of high-performance printers, designed for other purposes than small arms production. Access to 3D printing is expected to increase significantly, both in terms of lower prices of printers and increasing capabilities of 3D printing services, further limiting their controllability. The materials used to 3D print small arms are also not covered by current controls and find a wide range of civilian applications. The combination of the limited risks that they pose and the possible adverse effects will likely preclude the introduction of controls.

Export controls on the technical data required for the development, production, operation or repair of a controlled item to date provided the main regulatory measure on 3D printing. From an export controls perspective, the removal of such controls on technical data is a worrying development. While the impact may remain low in the area of small arms, if such rulings were to be extended to other areas, such as missile and aerospace technology, the impact could potentially be much more significant. Therefore, retaining controls on electronic transfers and sharing of technical data is an important part of export controls in a broader sense and especially in the context of increasing 3D printing and additive manufacturing capabilities.


Kolja Brockmann is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control programme.