Dangerous Innovation – Defense Distributed and the Democratization of Weapons Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing shows tremendous potential for commercial and humanitarian applications, but it also presents ethical questions and the potential for unintended consequences. 


Download.  Print.  Load.  Fire.  Should it be this easy to obtain a functioning firearm?


Defense Distributed, a Texas-based non-profit dedicated to “the benefits of the American rifleman”[1], thinks so.  Founded in 2012 by Chris Wilson, then a law student at the University of Texas, Defense Distributed topped headlines in 2013 when it publicly released the designs for an operational 3D-printable pistol dubbed “the Liberator”.  A lawsuit filed by the US State Department forced the designs to be taken down two days later, but not before over 100,000 downloads irrevocably distributed it across the internet.[2]  To many, Defense Distributed (and Wilson specifically) was wildly irresponsible and dangerous.[3] Others saw Defense Distributed as a noble protector of civil liberties in America.  In either case, it highlighted that new innovations were leading society towards uncharted territory.


Defense Distributed’s organizational objectives differ from those of a corporation, but several aspects of additive manufacturing that appeal to profit-seeking firms also influenced Defense Distributed’s choices.  Fundamentally, additive manufacturing provides the ability to quickly iterate on product design, enabling a single machine to produce a wide array of products with minimal switching costs.  Meanwhile, by eliminating the need for manufacturing facilities and assembly lines, it dramatically lowers the capital expenditures required, which in turn makes it feasible to have machines geographically dispersed.  These attributes often lead to additive manufacturing being utilized for rapid prototyping, personalized products, or on-site production.[4]  In Defense Distributed’s case, it enables users to inexpensively produce firearms of varying designs at a location of their choosing.


Simultaneous with the development of the “Liberator”, Defense Distributed had established an opensource database of weapons designs called DEFCAD.[5]  Thus, they leveraged the power of open innovation as a multiplier to additive manufacturing.  Ongoing legal issues have remained an issue, though a settlement this summer nearly re-authorized design releases.  Defense Distributed also expanded to computer numerical control (CNC) machining and sells the “Ghost Gunner 2” which produces the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.[6]  CNC machining is similar to 3D printing in that an individual unit is produced based on an input design, though it is a subtractive rather than additive method.  Defense Distributed is able to continue selling the “Ghost Gunner 2” despite the recent legal issues impacting other aspects of its business.


It is an interesting, if perhaps uncomfortable, thought experiment to consider “What should the management of Defense Distributed do to capitalize on additive manufacturing in the future?”.  To a large extent, this will be dictated by the result of ongoing legal disputes.  Irrespective of that outcome, the more relevant question is what should be the reaction of society and government?  On a micro level, that requires considering the implications of this individual case.  Is it, for example, an infringement upon the free speech rights of Defense Distributed to block the distribution of designs on the internet as they and co-petitioners argue?[7]  And if there is some impingement of speech, might that be justified to prevent public harm?  Interestingly, even President Trump opined this summer that public distribution of 3D-printed firearms “doesn’t seem to make much sense”.[8]

More broadly, what other unforeseen consequences might emerge from the proliferation of additive manufacturing?  Are there risks to intellectual property protections or to public safety?  Do we need new regulatory structures to account for cross-border transfers?  Falling prices will enable more individuals to have the ability to produce an ever-wider array of items.  This dynamic could generate creativity and dynamism akin to what occurred in scholarship after the proliferation of the printing press.  However, the proliferation of production makes regulation difficult and can lead to abuses.  Embracing innovation is good, but it is important that we do so thoughtfully and with awareness of potential risks.


(774 Words)

[1]  “About Us”. Defense Distributed. Retrieved November 12, 2018.

[2] Greenberg, Andy. “3D-Printed Gun’s Blueprints Downloaded 100,000 Times In Two Days”Forbes. Retrieved 12 November 2018.

[3] Beckhusen, Robert. “15 Most Dangerous People in the World”. Wired. Retrieved 12 November 2018.

[4] D. Spaeth. 3D printing is changing the face of multiple industries. ECN: Electronic Component News 61, no. 9 (October 2017): 21–23.

[5] Limer, Eric (December 21, 2012). “There’s a New Site Just for 3D-Printed Gun Designs”Gizmodo. Retrieved 12 November 2018.

[6] Greenberg, Andy. “The $1200 Machine That Lets Anyone Make a Metal Gun at Home”. Wired. Retrieved 12 November 2018.

[7] Brief for the CATO Institute as Amicus Curiae, p. 14, Defense Distributed v. U.S. Department of State, (2017).

[8] Trump, D. [realDonaldTrump]. (2018, July 31). I am looking into 3-D plastic guns being sold to the public.  Already spoke to the NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense! [Tweet]. Retrieved 12 November 2018


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Student comments on Dangerous Innovation – Defense Distributed and the Democratization of Weapons Manufacturing

  1. Thanks for writing this article. I think the ethical debate around additive manufacturing is just beginning to occur. As with many disruptive advances of the past, it is easy and convenient to think about all of the good the innovation can bring to business and society, but incredibly difficult to consider what steps need to be taken to ensure its ‘proper use.’ I believe that laws and regulations in this space are certainly a hot discussion topic and will be necessary moving forward. My issue with that is it might stifle the growth and development of the technology necessary to reduce up-front investment costs and use for large scale and extremely beneficial applications in various fields. Since you’ve caused me to pause and consider some of the risks of this new and innovative technology, instead of just the benefits, I think others to consider are: (1) the potential for monopolization (2) issues with different laws and regulations across borders resulting in high development in some areas and little to no development in others.

    Interesting and thought provoking piece.

  2. Appreciate you highlighting some of the risks that come along with the many exciting opportunities that additive manufacturing presents.

    Ultimately, I believe that the manufacturers of 3D printers will have to collect and consolidate data about the items people print at home in order for any law enforcement body to manage these risks. The printers themselves seem like a more manageable point of observation than the many online databases of items that have already started to emerge, but in many countries–like the US–there will definitely be some privacy concerns.

    I agree with @Christopher Reynolds that there is a risk of stifling innovation through regulation, but I think that governments have to know if individuals are manufacturing weapons. Safety should take priority over innovation.

    1. I think this will be important not just for weapons, but also for products that–if not functionally sound–could injure consumers

  3. Such a fascinating topic — I was hoping someone would write about this!

    I never thought I’d say this in my life, but I generally agree with Trump on this one… “Doesn’t seem to make much sense!”

    However, I do wonder if the proliferation of printed firearms would have the potential to undermine the power of the gun lobby and the NRA. If people are less dependent on established gun manufacturers to source weapons, perhaps their resources and ability to impact public policy would diminish. Also, if gun ownership becomes decentralized and individualized, perhaps people will no longer seek out affiliation with the NRA… Just a thought.

    A question I have is to what extent this technology would increase people’s access to guns. It’s already way too easy to acquire an AR-15, for example — would 3-D printing make them that much more accessible?

  4. This was one of the more interesting concepts that I have read so far, it brings forth a convoluted argument between the first and the second amendment – do we stop the proliferation of possibly dangerous digital designs or impinge upon what some people in the country would consider their second amendment rights. I personally think that the company should ethically consider the possible danger of compiling and/or creating these designs in the first place. I don’t believe that there is any particular positive in being able to create highly dangerous weapons secretly in your own home but it is impossible to control something digital as soon as it gets on to the internet. The company needs to consider how to control the spread of their IP and if they cannot safety control where and to whom the designs are going to (possibly create some sort of DRM between the data and certified 3-D printers) then I would say that they will ultimately bear an inescapable part of the responsibility for any damage or destruction that comes from their products.

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