Project aims to let anyone print a gun in their own home, raising new concerns about the legality of homemade firearms

Imagine an America in which anyone can download and print a gun in their own home. They wouldn't need a license, a background check, or much technical knowledge, just a 3D printer. That's the vision a cadre of industrious libertarians are determined to turn into reality.

Last week, Wiki Weapon, a project to create the first fully printable plastic gun received the $20,000 in funding it needed to get off the ground. The project's goal is not to develop and sell a working gun, but rather to create an open-source schematic (or blueprint) that individuals could download and use to print their own weapons at home.

The technology that makes this possible is 3D printing, a process during which plastic resin is deposited layer by layer to create a three dimensional object. In the past few years 3D printers have become increasingly affordable, and just last week the first two retail stores selling 3D printers opened in the United States with models ranging from$600 to $2,199.

Spearheading the Wiki Weapon project is Cody Wilson, a second-year law student at the University of Texas. After brainstorming the concept with a friend, Wilson assembled a group of engineers, programmers and designers to develop the printable firearm. Initially the collective, which calls itself Defense Distributed, tried to crowd-source start-up capital on the funding website Indiegogo, but after the project began receiving media attention, Indiegogo froze the group's account and refused to hand over approximately $2,000 that Defense Distributed had raised.

Indiegogo asserted that the group violated company policy, claiming that the project is related to the sale of firearms. But, as Wilson is quick to point out, Wiki Weapon isn't a for-profit venture and doesn't intend to ever sell tangible firearms. The group's aim is simply to publish a schematic, which would be available online for anyone free of charge.

Despite this hiccup, Defense Distributed still managed to raise the money it needed from donors by using the direct deposit platform Bitcoin. However, if what happened with Indiegogo is any indication, the project will likely face more legal hurdles in the future. Since 3D printing technology is so new, the legality of the gun publication is still somewhat opaque.

According to Dave Kopel, the research director of the Independence Institute, it is legal to create pistols, revolvers and rifles at home, although some states are stricter than others. As long as an inventor isn't selling, sharing or trading the weapon, under federal law, a license isn't necessary. Homemade creations also don't need to be registered with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and are legal for use by the individual who created the weapon.

But there are some exceptions to what can be printed legally. Military-grade weapons like machine guns, rocket launchers, sawed-off shotguns and explosives, as well as concealed firearms (like guns within phones or pens) need prior ATF approval before a manufacturer can create them. Federal law also requires "any other weapon, other than a pistol or revolver, from which a shot is discharged by an explosive if such weapon is capable of being concealed on the person" to be subject to ATF review. Since a potential Wiki Weapon would likely be "any other weapon", the ATF would probably have to approve a prototype, and the bureau has said as much.

Either way, if a fully functional plastic Wiki Weapon is printed, it may be illegal upon creation thanks to an obscure law from the late 1980s. In 1988, Congress passed the Undetectable Firearms Act after the Glock company provoked controversy by selling firearms made with plastic polymers. The technique, which was revolutionary at the time but is common in the industry today, alarmed many gun control advocates who were concerned that plastic guns wouldn't register in airport x-ray machines.

Gun rights advocates remember the uproar as hyperbolic because Glocks do contain metal, and x-ray machines don't even distinguish between metal and plastic. The legacy of the Glock controversy is a law that mandates that all US guns must contain at least 3.7 ounces of steel. However, the law is set to expire in December 2013. If Congress doesn't renew it, Wilson and company wouldn't have to worry about the legislation.

"I haven't felt any real heat yet, but I think it's very possible the project might happen outside of America or the files might be hosted outside of America," said Wilson who is cognizant of the statute. "The point of manufacture might also have to be outside of the United States."

Of course, even if a plastic gun is illegal, it would be incredibly easy to print if a schematic were available. Under US law there's nothing illegal about creating or sharing a schematic for a weapon unless that weapon is copyrighted or patented. Publications like the Anarchists Cookbookand nuclear bomb schematics are available online.

When asked about the possibility of a Wiki Weapon hypothetically being used by a child or a mentally unstable individual, Wilson, a fierce libertarian, defended the project.

"People say you're going to allow people to hurt people, well that's one of the sad realities of liberty. People abuse freedom," said Wilson. "But that's no excuse to not have these rights or to feel good about someone taking them away from you."

Another less hypothetical legal issue concerns the receiver or frame of the gun. In the United States manufactured guns are regulated by serial numbers, which are only printed on the receiver. All other parts of a gun – the barrel, the magazine, the handle, the trigger, etc – don't have to be registered and can be bought by anyone.

Last year an American gunsmith named Michael Guslick took advantage of this loophole to upload and print out a receiver (technically known as a lower receiver) for an AR-15 or M16. He then attached the lower receiver to other gun components, thereby completely circumventing regulations.

According to Guslick, after assembling the gun he managed to successfully fire off 200 rounds. In some US jurisdictions, Guslick's experiment would probably have been considered illegal, but what's perhaps most interesting is the implication that today it's already possible, even for someone who has had a gun license revoked, to build their own unregistered firearm at home with printed plastic parts.

But Kopel expects 3D gun printing to remain a hobbyist pursuit, at least in the United States.

"If this thing does work I think it would be great for the people in Syria to have a 3D printer so they could start making their own guns and start resisting the mass murderer Assad," said Kopel. "The guy who is robbing a 7-Eleven isn't going to buy a 3D printer."

According to Peter Swire, an internet law professor at Ohio State University, for the moment 3D printing is just another tool for hobbyists, who have a long history in the US.

"What's important here is the ability to turn software into a gun anywhere in the world," said Swire. "I think the big question is how many 3D printers are we going to have? The more 3D printers the more gun factories there are."

It's impossible to know exactly how many Americans own guns because there's no gun census, but it's well-known that the US is the most armednation on earth with about a third of the globe's guns. Kopel questions whether people will go to the trouble of printing guns out when they are so easily available.

It's also important to note that building an all-plastic gun is difficult and dangerous. To be successful, the Wiki Weapon will need to be able to absorb the impact of exploding gunpowder and expanding gas, which Guslick doubts could be contained by the type of plastic used in non-industrial 3D printers like the RepRap and Makerbot.

For Wilson and his team, however, the challenge isn't necessarily to create a practical firearm. Realistically, he said, a plastic gun would probably only work once and have to be disposed of after use. Even if it were to succeed and the team were able to create a plastic gun, he acknowledged that it's highly unlikely that a Wiki Weapon would replace existing commercial models anytime soon. But that isn't why the group is pursuing the project.

Like many Americans Wilson's family had guns when he was growing up in Arkansas, but he isn't as he puts it, "a guns guy". He only bought his first gun a year ago and most of his childhood was spent "with my nose in a book". Wilson said his interest in making firearms is rooted not in a passion for guns, but in libertarian ideals.

"In the future no one is going to be able to decide who has a gun but you," Wilson said. "This is a project that intends to help subvert older hierarchies and these older modes of thinking."

By virtue of his legal training, Wilson is the de facto in-house lawyer for the Wiki Weapon project, and he freely admits that he's not entirely sure if the weapon he's creating is legal. But for him, that's part of the project's novelty.

"This project could very well change the way we think about gun control and consumption," Defense Distributed states in the "manifesto" published on its website. "How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the internet? Let's find out."

It's telling that after a summer of senseless shootings, gun control remains notably absent from the public conversation, and in an election year no less. But if the Wiki Weapon project does print a useable gun, it seems inevitable that the nation will need to evaluate the potential of this new technology and iron out how to regulate it.

So maybe Defense Distributed and Cody Wilson will get an answer to their manifesto's query after all. If they're successful, surely we will all find out.