Is It Legal To 3-D Print A Handgun?

Avery interesting article appeared on PopSci recently about the legality of ‘printing’ guns in the US:

“The backers of the Wiki Weapons Project want to create a free, opensource digital file for printing a working handgun at home. But can they do so legally?   

Earlier this week, the Wiki Weapons Project–an initiative to create a 3-D printed handgun and distribute the digital design file for free online–ran into a stumbling block when 3-D printer provider Stratasys pulled the lease on a printer it had provided the group. Stratasys cited a clause in the lease agreement that allows the company to rescind a lease for printers believed to be used for unlawful purposes. That raises the obvious (and thorny) question: Is the Wiki Weapons Project doing anything illegal?

“This raises lots of interesting questions,”  says Michael Weinberg, a staff attorney at Public Knowledge, a legal consortium focused on digital technology, the internet and intellectual property. “There are going to be a lot of stories in the future about people doing interesting things and uninteresting things with 3-D printing. The question people need to ask themselves is: was this possible before 3-D printing? And if so, did the use of a 3-D printer fundamentally change the nature of it. For this, it seems to me that the answer is no.”

That’s a common sentiment among the experts we talked to.”

The theme of the article worked under the premise that it was illegal to do so. However, according to iambronco: “The relevant document for the question of whether it is legal for an unlicensed individual to manufacture a firearm is “TITLE 18, UNITED STATE CODE, CHAPTER 44”.

Much of the apparent ambiguity and confusion here is because there is no specific provision that explicit states that it is legal. Rather, the code states what is illegal. Before I go on, I’ll preface this explanation with the disclaimer that the conclusion below is not just my own opinion, but the ATF itself has made the following conclusion and has stated it verbatim in letters available online and here:

So here we go into the rabbit hole… from title 18, USC, chapter 44

§ 922 Unlawful acts. (a) It shall be unlawful— (1) for any person— (A) except a licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, or licensed dealer, to engage in the business of importing, manufacturing, or dealing in firearms, or in the course of such business to ship, transport, or receive any firearm in interstate or foreign commerce;

Key word here is “engage in the business of”, which is defined earlier in chapter 44:

21) The term “engaged in the business” means— (A) as applied to a manufacturer of firearms, a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to manufacturing firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the sale or distribution of the firearms manufactured;

further definition from chapter 44:

22) The term “with the principal objective of livelihood and profit” means that the intent underlying the sale or disposition of firearms is predominantly one of obtaining livelihood and pecuniary gain, as opposed to other intents, such as improving or liquidating a personal firearms collection: Provided, That proof of profit shall not be required as to a person who engages in the regular and repetitive purchase and disposition of firearms for criminal purposes or terrorism.

and lastly;

So essentially, the ATF is of the opinion that, provided you are not “IN THE BUSINESS” or manufacturing the firearm, you are not violating any provisions under 18 USC, Ch 44, section 922, and therefore are lawfully manufacturing the firearm.

Of course (and this is an IMPORTANT caveat), you could create a firearm that violates other provisions of 922, for instance ones related to NFA firearms, machine guns, or banned imported military firearms. But generally speaking, pistols, rifle, shotguns and semi-automatic ‘assault rifles’ are all treated equally under the applicable provisions of section 922.”

I’m sure in time we will have a clear, categorical answer and this might be tested in court.


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