3D-Printed Guns: The World’s Most Dangerous Art?

This is an art controversy -- and the stakes couldn't be higher.

3D-printed guns
Cody Wilson's 3D-printed pistol "The Liberator," downloaded over 100,000 times. Photo: Vvzvlad/Wikimedia Commons.

Whether and how to regulate 3D-printed guns is one of America’s thorniest new dilemmas. With the sophistication of today’s 3D printers, it is now possible for anyone with such a device to make their own guns simply by downloading them from the internet — no background checks or serial numbers required. The technology to create these untraceable firearms has existed for several years; crypto-anarchist Cody Wilson, founder of the nonprofit Defense Distributed, created the first working prototype (named “The Liberator”) in 2012. Wilson has since emerged as the face of digital gunsmithing, and his online marketplace, DEFCAD, currently sells the files to print parts for a variety of gun types, from handguns to an AR-15.

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If this sounds to you like something one shouldn’t be able to do quite so easily, you’re not alone. On July 31, federal judge Robert Lasnik of Seattle issued a restraining order forbidding Wilson from distributing his blueprints online. “There is a possibility of irreparable harm because of the way these guns can be made,” Lasnik noted, observing that more than 2,500 people had already downloaded the blueprints for Wilson’s AR-15. Even Donald Trump found this unnerving:

He hasn’t always felt that way, though. The Obama Administration originally banned Wilson from distributing his gun blueprint back in 2013, after more than 100,000 people downloaded The Liberator. Once Trump’s team came in, the Department of Justice offered Wilson a settlement that allowed him to resume publishing. And listening to the symbolic language he uses to describe these guns — Wilson says he’s “happy to become iTunes” of 3D-printed guns — I can’t help but think that this isn’t just a manufacturing debate. This is an art controversy.

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As Beck Feibelman and Carol Strickland of the CFR reported previously, guns have long been deeply embedded in our art. Are guns themselves art? Yes, it turns out. Not long after Wilson printed his first gun five years ago, London’s Victoria and Albert museum, one of the world’s leading institutions of art and design, acquired two of his original prototypes and included them in an exhibition. “I don’t see it as an art project,” Wilson told Forbes at the time, “but it has an artistic sensibility about it. It’s a kind of demonstration, proof of the direction of our technical future.” He openly frames his data sharing as speech protected by the First Amendment — a legal loophole that has heavily worked in his favor. In other words, even if his 3D-printed guns were not originally thought of as art, they are now.

How should artists feel about this? Generally, artists aren’t so keen on being told by the government that they can’t make art (or objects with “artistic sensibilities”). Telling Wilson that he can’t make his guns would, by this logic, be censorship. At the same time, this art — which would translate into powerful, untraceable weapons available to anyone who can work a 3D-printer — could be some of the most, if not the most, dangerous art in the world. They aren’t the first objects to blend weaponry with artistry: people have cared about the function and form of their weapons for millennia, from ornate broadswords to guns emblazoned with Hello Kitty. But I can’t think of any such object that would make so much firepower available to so many with so little oversight. Wilson’s art has precipitated an impasse between art and the real potential for violence. Yet, by conceiving of 3D-printed guns as art, we also have roadmap for how to address it.

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While artists may not like censorship, the reality is that we forbid a lot of art — and for good reason. We generally don’t allow people to make art that breaks the law. While plenty of art, like graffiti or work produced as an act of protest, may technically exist outside the law, you also can’t rob a bank as performance art and get away with it. Artist unions and numerous governing bodies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the National Fire Protection Association, also have detailed policies or terms for what is permissible (and legal) in the process of creating artistic work. We agree to work by these rules not to squelch anyone’s freedom but because they ensure the safety and well-being of the artists involved. This means people can’t always do whatever they want to do, and that’s OK.

Given these rules, what are we to think of how Wilson approaches his work? If a theater forbids a set designer from blocking the fire exits, if a museum refuses an exhibit that contains toxic material, would anyone think of this as violating freedom of speech? As we look at #MeToo stories of artists forced into physically and emotionally painful situations, does anyone think firing the creators of art created through abuse is unlawful censorship? To use the parlance of the gun debate, we are pro-art, but we are also pro-art control. And I think we should feel the same way about 3D-printed guns, especially now that they have become art. While I’m no gun fan, people have a right to be pro-gun. But, like responsible artists, responsible gun owners need to prioritize safety and oppose those in their ranks, like Wilson, who seek to flout the laws and regulations that ensure public safety.

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By entering the realm of art, Wilson may have opened himself up to more regulation than if he had denied that his guns have artistic merit, since art is some of the only speech that people are commonly open to cracking down on. American culture, while it doesn’t always get it right, at least somewhat responds to a public outcry over harmful work, whether it’s dispatching Roseanne from ABC or reshooting All the Money in the World without Kevin Spacey. I realize these are business, rather than purely moral, decisions, but they are informed by how audiences tend to reject artists perceived as toxic.

So, if 3D-printed guns are an art controversy, can it be resolved in the way that controversies about art should be resolved — embracing freedom of expression, while putting a premium on strict safety precautions? And if this isn’t the right approach — if artistic speech should be regulated but a gun blueprint with an “artistic sentiment” should not be — why is that?

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Encouragingly, efforts to restrict 3D-printed guns are proving to be the rare gun issue that draws widespread support; the 2013 ban on Wilson’s work received bipartisan praise, and more than 50,000 of Trump’s followers liked his tweet. By reframing an issue about guns into one about free speech — and perhaps because clear party stances have yet to form around this nascent issue — we have found a way to turn the usual party divisions into something resembling real dialogue.

I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that the guns that most resemble art are those we’re most open to regulating. Wanting to restrict them feels uncomfortably like it may not be real progress on gun safety, since we’re rallying around the regulation of 3D blueprints for the guns, not the regulation of the guns themselves. Should it really be easier to convince people to restrict speech than to restrict weapons? One thing’s for sure: 3D-printed guns are coming whether we want them to or not; there’s only so much the government can do to stop the proliferation of online data. (Wilson has ominously threatened to use violence to defend his project if necessary.) We’re used to conversations on the Second Amendment, and we’re used to conversations on the First. Are we ready for an issue that bridges both?