Around the same time that Cody Wilson took the stage at SXSW to discuss his new for-profit 3D-printing design database earlier this month, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was finalizing his application to become a federally-licensed firearms manufacturer. Wilson stood in front of the crowd and talked about how everyone should have access to technology that made it easy for them to print gun parts in their garages.
He talked about Defense Distributed, the organization he and some friends set up to offer 3D-printed gun designs to the masses for free through a website called DEFCAD, and finally addressed the government's role in the manufacture of firearms. "I'm not soliciting help from the government," he said.
"We are trying to follow the law as it is now and be good citizens," Wilson added. "I don't view government as a benign institution." Well, the government doesn't seem entirely sure what to think of Wilson's own institution. I talked to a number of ATF representatives, all of whom sent a similar message: 3D-printed gun technology has arrived, but it's not good enough yet to start figuring out how to regulate it.
"We are aware of all the 3D printing of firearms and have been tracking it for quite a while," Earl Woodham, a representative for the ATF field office in Charlotte, told me. "Our firearms technology people have looked at it, and we have not yet seen a consistently reliable firearm made with 3D printing."
I called the ATF's Washington headquarters to get a better idea of what it took to make a gun "consistently reliable," and program manager George Semonick said the guns should be "made to last years or generations." In other words, because 3D-printed guns aren't yet as durable as their metal counterparts, the ATF doesn't yet consider them as much of a concern.
Aside from long-term durability, it's difficult to understand the difference between a regular gun and a 3D-printed gun in the ATF's eyes. Defense Distributed's gun can fire off hundreds of rounds in one sitting. Doesn't that seem pretty consistent? Plus, when a part fails, the owner can always just print a new one. That also means development is relatively cheap.