Print Me an Assault Rifle: Should 3-D Print Companies Be Responsible for Gun Control?

Since 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) first pioneered the process of laying down successive layers of material that are then cured or hardened into a functional three-dimensional object, 3-D printing has held incredible promise to transform the way goods are manufactured and resources are consumed. Like any disruptive technology, it also has some worrying ramifications. Just as the nation ponders stricter gun control, one group has used commercial 3-D printers to create a working AR-15, the same weapon used in the tragic Sandy Hook school shooting. What is the responsibility of 3-D printing companies to police this sort of behavior?

The group Defense Distributed, which is led by director Cody Wilson and dedicated to the open-source home manufacture of firearms, originally attempted to use a Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS  ) desktop printer to create a handgun. Upon learning of the plan, Stratasys revoked Wilson's license and repossessed the printer, citing the Undetectable Firearms Act, a law banning weapons made with plastic parts that would evade metal detectors. Wilson disputed that his project was illegal, and he may be right. There are no laws that specifically and intentionally address 3-D printing, so the issue falls into a legal grey area.

Wilson and his group apparently gained access to a 3-D printer elsewhere, however: In early December, Defense Distributed posted a video of an AR-15 assault rifle firing several rounds. The semiautomatic weapon was assembled partially from 3-D-printed plastic components and partially from off-the-shelf metal pieces, and it successfully fired several rounds in quick succession.

Granted, the weapon broke down after only six shots because of the heat and force generated by firing. However, this should be seen as a failure of the group's budget, not of the technology's capability: General Electric's (NYSE: GE  ) Aviation unit has a small 3-D printing operation that it uses to produce components capable of withstanding the heat and force of a jet engine.

This raises puzzling questions for 3-D print companies like Stratasys and 3D Systems. Stratasys took it upon itself to prevent its customers from using its technology in a manner it felt was illegal, but will the company be required by regulation to do so in the future?

By all accounts, Defense Distributed and Cody Wilson are law-abiding figures who simply have a keen interest in creating firearms. Far from trying to hide their intentions, they widely publicized their vision for printed weapons, even pre-emptively going to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. What if the next person who prints an assault rifle isn't such a stand-up guy? Do 3D Systems and Stratasys need to police their customers?

There isn't really precedent for this kind of thing. The closest case I can find is A&M Records vs. Napster. In that case, file-sharing website Napster was found to be not breaking any laws itself, while it was the service's users who were violating copyright by illegally downloading music. The Ninth Circuit ruled that since Napster knew that some of its users were breaking the law, and since it had the ability to prevent them from doing so, it therefore had the obligation to ensure the law was upheld. To comply with the injunction, Napster developed a system that was 99.4% effective in preventing illegal file sharing on its technology platform. The judge ruled that only 100% compliance was acceptable, and Napster was forced to shut down entirely.

If Stratasys and 3D Systems are similarly held 100% accountable for preventing abuse of their technology platforms, the companies would probably not be able to survive the compliance. Without a regulatory framework in place limiting the liability of the 3-D print companies, this remains an industry that could be undone by an unfriendly court ruling.

While risks loom large for 3D printers, the potential of these innovators is just as great. To help investors decide whether the future of additive manufacturing is bright enough to justify the lofty price tag on the company's shares, The Motley Fool has compiled a premium research report on whether 3D Systems is a buy right now. In our report, we take a close look at 3D Systems' opportunities, risks, and critical factors for growth. You'll also find reasons to buy or sell, and receive a full year of analyst updates with the report. To start reading, simply click here now for instant access.


Read/Post Comments (14) | Recommend This Article (2)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 1:04 PM, wayneeday wrote:

    Would you people PLEASE stop printing this story? NOBODY has created ANY KIND of working rifle from ANY existing 3D printer. The closest they have come was printing SOME PARTS.

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 1:20 PM, XMFCinco wrote:

    I think Daniel's point is that its likely people will be able to make working guns from 3D printers in the future. If that's the case, I'd be really surprised if courts made a ruling like the one you made in A&M Records vs Napster. It is a really interesting case though because the potential extensions of it are pretty alarming. Can no one use any open source technology that can be used to commit a crime? Personally I disagree with the judge's ruling in that case, partly because of situations like this.

    I don't think that owners in 3D printing companies should really be concerned about this particular legal issue in the next couple years, but it's still an interesting point.

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 1:42 PM, NOTvuffett wrote:

    I wish people that didn't know anything about guns would quit commenting on them. The 100 rounds in one minute meme is getting really old too. I would like to see Mayor Bloomberg (only 16oz of soda for you!) shoot 100 rounds of well aimed fire in a minute.

    The people that make the argument of 3-D printing being used to manufacture illicit guns also seem to be ignorant of the most basic engineering concepts.

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 1:57 PM, rd80 wrote:

    It's currently legal and not terribly difficult to build your own firearm. I think all the finish machine work on the 'firearm' part can be done with a drill press.

    It is illegal to sell or transfer a firearm you've built for your own use.

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 2:00 PM, Velek wrote:

    Should a car company be liable if somebody uses their car to run somebody over?

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 2:17 PM, rd80 wrote:

    "Do 3D Systems and Stratasys need to police their customers?"

    No more than machine tool makers need to police theirs.

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2012, at 3:25 PM, lynmar79 wrote:

    This is another hyperbolic fluff/fearmonger piece by a MF's writer who gets paid by the article. This is also a rehash of an article put out by TMF's just a couple of weeks ago. TMF's is losing credibility by allowing meaningless articles to be headlined under their brand. When will an editor step up and stop this kind of nonsense from being published?

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2012, at 1:07 AM, TMFCatoMinor wrote:

    Hi all, author here.

    wayneeday: XMFCinco has it right. If you're investing in a company like Stratasys or 3D Systems, you're not really thinking about what's possible today, you're thinking about what could be possible tomorrow, or a decade from now. There's a lot of potential there (I sincerely believe that: I invest in both DDD and SSYS with my own money), but there's also a lot of risk.

    rd80: The 3D printing industry is NOT just about the machine that allows you to print something. Commercial users don't have the ability to draft something in CAD that the 3D printer can print. They also need design plans. That's what Defense Distributed is dedicated to producing: open-source CAD plans for weapons. Stratasys, seeing this, believed themselves that they had a legal responsibility to step in to prevent this from happening. Cody Wilson had no plans to sell or distribute actual firearms, but he intended to distribute the plans. SSYS saw this as equal to distributing the firearms. You think they're so wrong that no judge would agree?

    lynmar: I guess I'll never convince you that I'm not some kind of short-monster. That other article was by me, as well. As a DDD and SSYS investor (my own money is behind the success of these companies), this issue genuinely concerns me. 3D printers are being used to produce components for firearms (not complete firearms, but components). This seems to invite regulation. That matters to my investment thesis. I want to make other 3D printer investors aware of my concerns so that they can make fully informed decisions. If you think anything I wrote was factually incorrect, please let me know. Thoughtful criticism of my writing makes me a better investor, so I sincerely appreciate it.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2012, at 10:54 AM, lynmar79 wrote:

    Why did you regurgitate the same article twice in a month, other than to link your topic to Sandy Hook? IMO, that's using a tragedy to fearmonger, and TMF's should be above this kind of journalism. Also, I never called you a short in my earlier post, as you noted in your disclosure that you are long DDD.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2012, at 1:15 PM, TMFCatoMinor wrote:

    Because there's been news. Last time I wrote, nobody had used 3D-printed components to produce an assault rifle capable of successful firing.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2012, at 7:48 PM, rd80 wrote:

    "open-source CAD plans for weapons."

    That already exists too. Everything you need to build an AR-15 is available on line, open source.

  • Report this Comment On December 24, 2012, at 3:57 PM, starfyre1 wrote:

    In short NO, it should not be held responsible any more the a lathe or milling machine company should be held responsible for something that an end user might make on the equipment that they ought.

  • Report this Comment On December 24, 2012, at 4:44 PM, lynmar79 wrote:

    rd80/starfyre1, both of you are spot on. With that said, I think we have all given this ariticle more attention than it deserves.

  • Report this Comment On December 30, 2012, at 7:48 PM, NickD wrote:

    Great to know gun people want the printers too more money for everyone.

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